Strange but True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Nov. 13

Phoenix is a remarkable city, and not always in the best sense of the word. Older American cities such as New York and Chicago grew upward into awe-inspiring high-rise canyons. Phoenix, in contrast, sprawled outward, into the desert. Although it certainly isn’t the only Western city that has tumbled headlong into the hinterlands—Los Angeles has sprawled bigger, for example, and Las Vegas has sprawled tackier—Phoenix sprawls weirder than anywhere else.

In Phoenix, the natural and built environments meet in a strange, messy embrace, thanks largely to the metro region’s rigid grid system. You can be driving in an urban area—say, Glendale—and then a few moments later hit desert. But the desert is crisscrossed by empty streets with names like “123rd Avenue.” There are even curbs and center lines, but the perfect squares they inscribe are devoid of anything, save irrigated crops and the occasional cactus.

In time, of course, these blocks will become housing developments; then the same pattern will start repeating a little further out. It is this nexus of built and unbuilt environments that fires the artistic mind of fourth-generation Arizonan Allen Dutton.

I believe it’s fair to characterize Dutton as an odd bird. Paul Roth, the Corcoran Gallery of Art curator who oversaw the installation of “Strange but True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton,” describes him as a “charming and eccentric intellectual.” Now 78, Dutton has dabbled in out-there surrealist art and lives on a rhinoceros ranch in rural Arizona. (At least I believe he does; in interviews, Dutton is so deadpan and enigmatic that I can’t be entirely sure he’s being straight about the rhinos.)

Since the late ’70s, Dutton has been documenting the contemporary Arizona landscape with a large-format camera mounted on a pickup truck, much as his historical predecessors—Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, William Henry Jackson, and Carleton Watkins—did by foot and wagon back when the West was a true frontier. And like Eugène Atget in early-20th-century Paris, Dutton finds fascination in a place’s smallest, most ordinary-seeming physical details.

But rarely does Dutton take the obvious picture: He largely avoids shooting timeless adobe structures and fashionable old stone buildings. (The one stylish storefront he includes—located along the old Route 66 in Williams, Ariz.—makes the cut, I suspect, because its old-fashioned façade anachronistically advertises such modern offerings as “cappuccino” and “espresso.”) Dutton prefers roadside gas stations and feed stores—not the heroic ones portrayed by Edward Hopper or Ed Ruscha, but bland-looking operations straight out of Bagdad Cafe.

At times, Dutton’s relentlessly pedestrian approach is annoying. For instance, a viewer would never know from Dutton’s photograph of Jerome, Ariz., that it is a refreshingly quirky mining-town-turned-artists’-haven that clings to a mountainside on stilts. Nevertheless, Dutton’s eye is often keen. In Irrigation south of Laveen, looking west, Dutton catches a view of parallel agricultural furrows that mirror the pattern of receding stripes on the Arizona state flag. In El Mirage off Grand Avenue, looking west, Dutton captures a religious-revival tent—a temporary structure whose spiritual purpose represents, perhaps, a manifestation of Arizonans’ search for something eternal amid all the transience and rootlessness they have brought to the state.

The least edifying works in the Corcoran exhibition are Dutton’s photographs of modern-day Phoenix, which are little more exciting than a glance out the window of a car riding up Rockville Pike. Moreover, in their artistic sensibility and thematic punch, some of Dutton’s earlier roadside images seem largely derivative of work produced by Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, two photographers who extensively documented the changing Western landscape in the ’70s.

Far more compelling are Dutton’s before-and-after images. These works trace their lineage to the Rephotographic Survey Project (RSP), a late-’70s effort by Western photographers to seek out the original locations photographed by O’Sullivan, Jackson, and other pioneering practitioners. Once RSP participants found the proper sites, they rephotographed them, documenting how the spots had changed over the last century. They also took note of what stood just out of range of the viewfinder.

The RSP’s final document, Second View, was published in 1984. In some pictures, boulders have split and landforms have been vandalized, even as mountains in the background have remained more or less the same. In other images, the modern photographers revealed that the landscape at some sites had actually reverted to a relatively pristine state. Intrigued by the work of the RSP, Dutton set out to record such changes in his beloved Arizona. But whereas the original RSP artists used relatively famous images as their starting points, Dutton chose instead to rely on obscure archive photographs he had unearthed.

Roth nicely describes Dutton’s before-and-after works as akin to the sudden cuts in early movies in which an object in one frame suddenly disappears in the next, as if by magic. The quintessential Dutton before-and-after tableau is his pairing of an anonymous photographer’s Phoenix, Camelback Mountain (1910) with his own Phoenix, looking north (1980). In the former, the famous mountain sits lonely amid tumbleweeds and cacti. In the latter, the mountain is barely visible behind a row of ranch-style houses, telephone lines, and parked cars.

In other paired images, wagon carts are replaced by cars, Stetson-sporting pioneers supplanted by snowbirds in cotton-poly blends. A 1915 photograph taken in Ash Fork, Ariz., features the porch of a grand-looking railroad depot; Dutton’s 1980 counterpart shows only a group of forlorn double-wide trailers and cinder-block buildings. Still, not all of the changes Dutton documents are so depressing. In a three-stage portrait of a street corner in downtown Phoenix, Dutton shows that skyscrapers sprouted between 1979 and 2000—but so did a cluster of healthy-looking trees.

As telling as these images are, Dutton’s best work consists of his efforts to document Sun City, a retirement community located northwest of Phoenix. Dutton passed through Sun City once in the mid-’80s and then returned to the same locations last year. Unlike his other before-and-after images—or those taken for the RSP—Dutton’s Sun City photographs feature homes, rather than mountains and other landforms, as their most constant visual elements. Everything else—particularly the flora—fluctuates with time.

Consider Dutton’s two images of 10631 Snead Drive, taken 14 years apart. In the first, the lawn explodes with a breathtaking array of cacti. In the more recent picture, the same lawn consists entirely of gravel. Yet the cut of the house’s roofline, the shape of the street’s curb, and the structure of the public building down the block are exactly the same. In another image, the home at 9308 Hidden Valley Circle appears to be precisely the same as it was in the ’80s except for its immaculately pruned shrubbery, which has grown both fatter and taller. (Apparently, denizens of Sun City care passionately about their yards; one resident, Anthony Carozza, even posed for Dutton with his hedge trimmer in hand.)

What’s great about the Sun City photographs is their sense of humor—something far more noticeable in these images than in the rest of Dutton’s oeuvre (or, for that matter, in the work of the RSP artists). Although Dutton poses his subjects in the deadpan style used by Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, his take is much lighter. Dutton’s homeowners seem neither freakish nor craven, just profoundly ordinary, and rather happy, to boot. And the Seussian hedges and charmingly dopey brick patterns in their yards add an additional dash of whimsy to the portraits. Underlying it all, however, is a layer of poignance: After 14 years, Dutton appears to have found only one house occupied by the same couple. How many of the rest, we are left to ponder, died in the interim?

But even Dutton’s most compelling work is not free of problems. At times, his before-and-after pairings do not match precisely. For instance, two pictures of Ajo, Ariz., taken in 1900 and 1979, show a stone building giving way to a deep mine pit. Yet the mountains in the backgrounds of the original and Dutton’s restaging are in far from precise alignment, leading to the assumption that Dutton was sacrificing historical accuracy in the pursuit of a striking contrast. (The RSP photographers never would have published that pairing; they were careful, to the point of anal retentiveness, about where to set up their tripods.)

More frustratingly, Dutton provides little historical information about each picture. The sheer magnitude of his documentary project probably made it impossible for him to acquire detailed background information about every image. But he has little excuse for raising some tantalizing questions and then not answering them. He offers a number of compelling images of unnatural groupings of palm trees and cacti, some of them propped up by wood-and-wire supports. In the caption to one photograph, Dutton even hints darkly that the plants are “prisoners of the subdivision wars.” Yet he never explains who is fighting those wars, or why, leaving viewers craving an explanation.

Still, even though he lives and works in a state that will be facing a tough battle over an anti-sprawl ballot initiative this fall, Dutton’s art is refreshing for its refusal to reduce complicated development issues into a rigid ideological framework. Even as he plainly demonstrates to Arizonans—and Americans generally—the consequences of past land-use decisions, he also, in a sense, reminds us that what seems ordinary or tasteless today may become extraordinary tomorrow. We should be grateful for Dutton’s efforts to create a definitive record of the present. Without that record, we can hardly mount effective arguments—much less settle them—about the kind of landscape we want to have surrounding us in the future. CP