For more than a decade David Ottenstein has been looping around the Midwest and the South before returning home to New Haven. Everywhere he makes disturbingly beautiful photographs of broken buildings, abandoned industrial sites, savaged farm land, the undersides of overpasses, real bridges or piers that seem like moody stage sets left behind after an evacuation, and other de-peopled landscapes of abandonment, where the human touch is felt primarily by its neglect or absence.
Now the human beings are about to make a comeback. But for now broken landscapes reign at David Ottenstein’s new show.
That assertion — that actual people may begin to pop up in future images — emerged as Ottenstein was the well-deserved center of attention at Night, a haunting new show of his work that opened to a throng at the DaSilva Gallery in Westville and continues through March 31.
Night — a decade’s retrospective of the Beaver Hills-based artist’s photographic travels — features 22 large-size archival pigment prints, mostly in black and white, taken in ten different states. They were taken with only available light and shot either in the darkness of night or at dusk. The show is thus a wonderfully dark tour of grain elevators, bridges, storefronts, museum facades, and ethanol plants, from ten different states across the country.
Formally, Ottenstein found that shooting in such low light changed his approach. In his artist’s statement on the matter, he wrote that “during the day, while photographing remnants of single-family farms in Iowa or abandoned farmhouses or windmills in western states, I seek rural, remote vistas and am quite content with the sun’s light. But at night, whether for food, rest or wifi I’m drawn to artificially illuminated places.”
As for the images’ subjects, one element that is notably absent is people. Using his palette of light and darkness, Ottenstein uses facades and architectural elements, the broad sweep of line rather than the human face and form, to suggest his stories. The show, as a whole, seems to argue that steel beam has won out over the tree; the built over the felt. The big has won out over the small.
However, after years of documenting the ravages of Big Agriculture and the decline of farms, especially in the Midwest, Ottenstein said that very immersion has led him to “another project [that] will include people.”
He’s been staying with close friends who were among the few still working a family farm, Ottenstein said as he received accolades from friends and admirers at the opening — including Ottenstein’s cousin, city arts czar Andy Wolf, and sister-in-law Melanie Wolf.
The pictures he has taken of this small Iowa farm and its farmers have been among his strongest recent images, he said. And it occurred to him that maybe his friends could introduce him to other people and other similar locales — part of what he’s noticed is a growing new movement, a return to small farming.
“My plan is to photograph small family farm operations in Iowa that are healthy, sustainable agriculture,” he said.
That would include the families who are doing it, he said. Putting people back into the pictures feels like an organic progression, Ottenstein said, though he confided that his wife also wants him to put the folks back in.
Though in a broader sense Ottenstein doesn’t think about the issue of people or no people in his desolate landscapes. He’s concerned with the technical issues — how many different views he’ll take of a subject, each at a different exposure, before he is ready to digitally merge them to achieve the effect he is looking for.