Words are tucked away at the back of Odyssey, Linda Connor’s most recent book of photographs, a series of 142 tri-tone plates published by Chronicle in 2008. Drawn from work spanning four decades, this book, which accompanied a traveling exhibition in 2009-2010, embodies the very deliberate nature of Connor’s approach. The spare listing of plate numbers rather than titles on the book’s lustrous pages and the inversion of the more conventional text-then-images organization are no accident. Connor’s thoughtful sequencing of her images and the relegation of words to the final pages are critical to accurately representing her work; in the book, she states that the “content and essence” of her work “suggest the indescribable.”
Words are clearly at odds with this project. Both in conversation and in her images, Connor often relies on metaphor or analogy to preserve a degree of openness in interpretation. She revels in the relationship between nature and the sublime, between science and the sacred, and one would be hard-pressed to find an image in her oeuvre that cannot be read from both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes these questions are compressed within a single image, and sometimes the viewer is led to their contemplation by the relation of one photograph to a longer series; but in each case, Connor allows her images to remain unfixed, their meanings multiple and even transient. The wonderment that she frequently describes as central to her practice is motivated by these questions as well as humankind’s search for answers to them.
Known for her luminous, large-format photographs and the ethereal quality of their toning, Connor likens her selection of the view camera to a musician who has elected to play the cello or the double bass in an orchestra. It is large and awkward, but what it lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in its rich tonality. She admits:
I’m a rather sloppy photographer. I work fast and don’t always work accurately. I hate cable releases, even though I lose many pictures to the slight jiggle of the camera. I’m impatient with the precision that it requires, but I love looking at the world upside down on the 8×10 ground glass. I also find that the clumsy physicality and awkwardness of this big camera, tripod, and film holders shift my attention physically so that my mind tends to be more focused on the images and less in some kind of verbal discussion.
Connor’s images convey her sense of wonder, but suppress the awkwardness and difficulties of dealing with the large-format camera in such remote locations as Sulawesi, Indonesia; Nazca, Peru; and Ladakh, India. The wind whipping a light-colored cloth in “Prayer Flag and Chortens, Ladakh, India” (1988) lends the image an ethereal quality, contrasting the flag, made transparent by its motion, with the heavy stillness of the rock piles and glowing chortens in the barren desert landscape. Ghostly figures seem to come and go in the dark, lantern-lit interior in “Muhammad Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt” (1989), while the filigree of the mosque’s elaborate decorations is sharply and indelibly recorded.
Even the great distances between locations are collapsed as Connor highlights visual correspondences. For example, a pair of images in Odyssey link a pictograph of a hand found in Utah’s Mystery Valley with a mudra, a ritualistic hand gesture, found in a sculpture in a Tibetan monastery. The incredibly fine detail of Connor’s large-format work presents her subjects with a clarity that only enhances their mystery; we see so much, and yet there is still so little that we understand.
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2012 issue.