MATT DUCKLO Tomorrow is a Long Timeby Taylor Dafoe
Launch F18 | March 25 – April 26, 2015
Like so many, photographer Matt Ducklo seems to have a complicated relationship with his hometown. He was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and around 2010, after a decade-long stint in New York, he moved back there. Soon after, he began a series of photographs in which he studied the city at night, still and deserted. The result, 26 large-format black-and-white photographs, form Ducklo’s new show, Tomorrow is a Long Time, on view at Launch F18’s new space on the Lower East Side.
Memphis is well represented in the canon of photography, it also being the hometown of William Eggleston, and the place where he made his career exploring the beautiful banalities of everyday life in saturated dye-transfer color. Ducklo shares Eggleston’s eye for the overlooked, or “democratic shooting,” which Eggleston famously espoused in his landmark 1989 monograph, The Democratic Forest. The former focuses his attention on the nooks and crannies of the contemporary city: the topology of manmade objects and abandoned buildings, nuances of neighborhoods and municipal infrastructure, etc. However, whereas Eggleston and other candid photographers offer brief glimpses into a scene, teasing at a larger story, Ducklo’s photos are less inviting. In their indistinctness, narration is hard to construct. And it’s to the benefit of the work, this mystery emerging as the strongest characteristic. The photos are frustrating to look at in the same way that they’re easy; they’re difficult to think about in the same way they’re overlookable. They’re more about mood than story. More about how they feel than what they depict. And still, it’s hard to put a finger on any of it.
Ducklo has a particular talent for capturing sensuality. His best-known work heretofore, and that which was shown in his last two New York exhibitions—Touch Tour Pictures at Eleven Rivington in 2008, and Mind’s Eye (with fellow photographer Matthew Monteith) at the Gallery at Hermès in 2012—captured people who are visually impaired exploring sculptures in major museums through touch. Reminiscent of both Thomas Struth’s museum portraits and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s staging, those works found the photographer exploring people exploring art. Here, with Tomorrow is a Long Time, Ducklo himself is the one doing the exploring, examining in detail the constituent parts of the city that form the larger whole. And while they are less tactile, they retain the same sense of raw connection between looker and object.
There are the images you might expect from a city at night: deserted bus stops and parking lots lit by lamps and street signs (“Bus Stop” , “201” ); a rusty garage receding into the overgrown trees by which it’s framed (“Garage with Shadows” ). Everywhere evidence of negligence and urban decay: a concrete wall disfigured by a recent fire (“240” ), smoke scars and ash darker than the night sky above it; a painted brick wall stained by the tainted runoff from a drain above (“Drip” ). Signs of anachronistic southern pride: a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a city symbol, on a horse, stained by acid rain (“Health Sciences Park” ); a Greek revivalist building, once ornate, now boarded up and abandoned (“Nineteenth Century Club” ).
Punctuating these scene-setting images are more esoteric ones. Of the 26 photos in the show, 15 of them depict church vans in parking lots. The vans, marked with the name of the church to which they belong, are all locked in a fence built to house them, presumably to protect them from vandalism and burglary. But Ducklo’s photos suggest something more symbolic: the ideological desire to protect faith from the outside world. Ducklo’s Memphis is different than Eggleston’s. There’s a reason these works were shot at night—Ducklo’s version of the city is dark. His Memphis is a modern city in an area of the country still desperately clinging to years long since past. His photographs of his hometown invoke the same sense of purgatorial timelessness that the nighttime brings, that feeling when yesterday seems long-gone but tomorrow is far away.
At a panel in 2013 at Paris Photo Los Angeles, Alec Soth talked about Eggleston’s Democratic Forest. He points to one image in particular, a nondescript picture pointed upward toward a blooming tree. Of the image Soth asks, “Why this one?” Meaning, why this photo, pretty as it is generic, instead of countless others? This same question comes up looking at many of the individual works in Ducklo’s Tomorrow is a Long Time series. Eggleston made a career of riding this line, looking twice at places people glanced over. It’s still unclear on which side of this line Ducklo will land.
TAYLOR DAFOE is the Assistant Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.