The photographs of Lynn Davis contemplate the sublime. Her minimalist vision meditates on the aesthetic and symbolic power of the natural and manmade world, distilling her environment into pure formal terms. Through this approach, Davis’ photographs dematerialize the world into its most basic elemental forms: water, dirt, stone, light, and air, presenting even the most recognizable and represented sites on earth, including the ancient Egyptian pyramids and the largest religious monument in the world at Angkor Wat, with authoritative originality.
Water and ice have been two central sites of Davis’ exploration. Her longstanding engagement with icebergs began in the 1980s, when she made her first voyage to Ilulissat, a small town bordering a glacier in Greenland, and continued over two decades and six expeditions. Her pared-down compositions convey only the most fundamental elements: an iceberg perched between sky and water invites contemplation of our world’s constant flow between solid, liquid, and gaseous states. The series Evening/Northumberland Straight (1993) approaches the level of pure abstraction in its expansive portrayals of water on the horizon. Through Davis’ vision, the complexity, vitality, and purity of what seem to be simple materials become portals for reflection. The rapid melting of the Arctic’s icebergs, and their transformation from solid, unique aesthetic forms into the ocean, adds further meaning to the cycles that her work explores.
Davis’ investigations of manmade structures share an interest in mining these icons’ transcendent qualities. In one of her best-known series, Egypt (1989), the ancient pyramids are poised between sky and earth, a formal yet impermanent link between positive and negative space. By removing all reference to human scale and contemporary activity, Davis taps directly into the enduring power of these structures, symbols of enduring legacy.
Edwynn Houk Gallery has represented Davis since 1993. The artist earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1970 before training with Berenice Abbott in New York. There, in 1979, she received her first major exhibition at the International Center of Photography alongside her friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Davis’ photographs have since been exhibited and collected internationally, including in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. In 2005, she became the first photographer to receive an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her publications include Monument (Arena Editions, 1999), Ice (Edwynn Houk Gallery Editions, 2001), Water (Edwynn Houk Gallery Editions, 2005), and Illumination (Melcher Media, 2007). In 2017, Davis was the subject of the documentary Meltdown. The artist lives and works in Hudson, New York.
In 1973, the photographer Lynn Davis was 29 years old and considering a move to New York City from San Francisco with the hope of beginning her career. She had a young son, a failing marriage, a degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, a Leica camera, her portfolio — and not much else. She landed a meeting at Esquire magazine, which at the time was going through a period of transition following the departure of its longtime editor, Harold Hayes.
In the 19th century, icebergs were a hot topic for artists looking for exotic subject matter. In the 21st century, icebergs are literally hot, at least warmer than they used to be, and are melting at a steady pace.
Lynn Davis: Africa (1997-1998) is on view Mondays through Fridays, 10am-4pm at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University
“Lynn Davis: On Ice” presents a selection of photographs from the artist’s longstanding engagement with the icebergs on the sea outside of Ilulissat, a small town on the edge of a glacier off the west coast of Greenland. Developed over the course of six expeditions that began in 1986, Davis’s photographs evidence strong affinities with the spare geometry of minimalist sculpture and track the dramatic transformation of the natural environment.
While travelling to Ilulissat, a small town on the edge of Disko Bay in Greenland, her career hit a turning point when she discovered icebergs. For 30 years she would return, tracking and studying their changing shapes. Monumental, Davis’s icebergs seem to drift away on the gelatin silver prints. Their shape long vanished; their suggestive carvings long gone. She asks herself: “What is so special about these icebergs? What causes loss of self in these creatures?”
From nude portraits in the 1960s to monolithic landforms in the 1990s, Lynn Davis has always had an eye for form, geometry and simplicity in the architecture of both nature and of manmade structures. Known for her large-scale black-and-white photographs, she was good friends with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and was an apprentice to the great Berenice Abbott, who trained beneath Man Ray.
The artist attempts to be removed, and yet she is laid bare. Her work embodies heartache, prayer, the physics of the sun, the womb. Solitude. Unflinchingly and beautifully cruel. Unveiling the monument’s soul, so heightened in isolation, so exposed as art.
Lynn Davis has been one of the most prominent American photographers since the nineteen-seventies. The pictures of natural and architectural monuments she makes on her travels around the world unite minimal precision with formal austerity to create images of meditative beauty. Davis is an artist, adventurer, and a witness of the times: formerly Berenice Abbott’s assistant, Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe counted among her closest friends. On the occasion of the exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition” currently on show at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Cheryl Kaplan visited the photographer in New York to talk to her about her work and her extraordinary friendship and collaboration with Mapplethorpe.
How can we, as modern people, make a genuine connection with the beauty of the ancient world? Lynn Davis faces that challenge each time she visits one of the world’s most sacred sites, revered monuments, or inspiring landscapes. Her life work is to take their photographs, so that those of us who will never go to Egypt or India or Angkor Wat can know their majesty, energy, and decay.
Ms. Davis, 62, is a veteran traveler. For the last 20 years she has circled the globe with her camera, documenting mammoth structures like the Great Pyramids and natural wonders like Wave Rock in western Australia in an austere yet ravishing style. She has photographed icebergs in Greenland; ancient architectural ruins throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East; and rock formations in the American West, following what she described as an “internal logic” from one continent to the next.
“What I’m looking for,” she said, “are sites that evoke a feeling of inner peacefulness, some quality of contemplation. I don’t always get it, and I don’t always translate it, but I certainly know when the feeling comes over me, and that’s what keeps me going.”
When Lynn Davis was asked for her thoughts regarding the photographs she took of sites for various space programs, she responded with a quotation from Kant's Prolegomena: "How is it that in this space, here, we can make judgments that we know with apodictic certainty that will be valid in that space, there?" On the face of it, the passage would seem to call into question the cognitive value of space programs as such. For if we can be "apodictically certain" that what is valid here on earth will be valid in teh farthest reaches of space, what need have we of these delicate, expensive pieces of equipment her images display? What can they tell us that we could not deduce from what is available to us near at hand?
Ice can take many forms, from an ingestible cube in a glass to architectural structures of monumental presence. In this, her second show on the subject, the photographer Lynn Davis zeros in on the latter, focusing on huge icebergs in Disko Bay, Greenland. Their majestic formations of cubes, towers, arches and cliffs and their reflections in shimmering water are the subjects of her awesome views.
Lynn Davis has spent much of the past twelve years in remote parts of the world, studying what she calls the "architectural puzzles" of ancient civilizations and making monumental landscape photographs. When she comes home, she produces huge (as big as forty-five by forty-five inches), brooding, elaborately toned prints, which are now available for view at Edwynn Houk Gallery in a show called "Africa."
Edwynn Houk built his reputation as the owner of the premier gallery in the Midwest. Based in Chicago, he became the country's acknowledged expert on Bill Brandt's work. In 1991, Houk teamed with Barry Friedman, an influential dealer specializing in Art Deco and avant-garde art, to open the Houk Friedman Gallery in New York. Last fall, however, Houk, 46, split with Friedman and opened his own gallery in Manhattan. "An art gallery is a single proprietor, a single entity, and it turns out we both had separate ideas of how it would function," he says. Houk now exclusively represents contemporary artists Sally Mann, Lynn Davis, Andrea Modica, and Elliott Erwitt and historical names like Bill Brandt, Brassaï, and Dorothea Lange. If there were any doubts about how Houk would do on his own, they were put to rest with his opening exhibition, featuring the latest work by Mann. (He has estimated that he sells one of Mann's prints a day.) At the same time, he premiered her work on the West Coast at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, once again forging an impressive alliance.