Art Sinsabaugh spent his career chasing the ends of the Earth.
Sinsabaugh taught photography at Chicago's Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1949 through 1959, and then at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign until he died in 1983. "At some point, I became aware of the unbelievable infinite detail on the horizon; this is what drew my attention," he said in 1967. "So I set about to pursue the distant horizon."
This singular devotion characterizes American Horizons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which serves as a companion piece to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art's Stephen Shore exhibition of 1970s American road-trip photos (see last week's review, "Been There"). This exhibition is much drier than the Kemper's — but, to be fair, it unfolds a completely different aesthetic.
Sinsabaugh had an academic sensibility and career. Using a large, 12-inch-by-20-inch banquet camera that produced wide, horizontal photographs, Sinsabaugh found the perfect vehicle to circumscribe his interest in the horizon line that is such an iconic image of the Midwest.
Taken between 1961 and 1963, his "Midwest Landscape Group" of photos conveys the region's sensation of flatness — some of these images are as small as 1-7/8 inches high by 19 inches wide. Cornfields, grain silos, farm buildings and power lines may remind us of the Hudson River School painters' similar fascination with the promise of the land. Barren only by comparison with those lushly forested images, this landscape is fecund with a different kind of hope and possibility.
Sinsabaugh was uncomfortable taking pictures of people — he felt he was imposing. His aesthetic was concerned with the formal elements of composition, light and space elements rather than the emotional charge that people typically add to an image. Yet the exhibition does have a few portrait groups, and these are some of the most enticing images — precisely because of the offhand way Sinsabaugh treated his human subjects (and because their presence in this exhibition makes them curiosities). The people are subjugated to the scene and, in some cases, almost impossible to find. In "Franz #2," Sinsabaugh's friend is a tiny figure lost in a mass of machinery and buildings.
What the exhibition lacks — what would make it more dynamic and meaningful — are some individual photograph labels revealing the artist's thoughts on his own work and experiences. The exhibition was organized by the Indiana University Museum of Art, which has a large collection of Sinsabaugh's work; an Indiana Web site (iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/sinsabaugh) reprints Sinsabaugh's notes and ledger entries that accompanied many of these images. One entry for a Chicago lakeshore scene records Sinsabaugh's terse conversation with someone who asked him, "Hey, who the hell are you, anyway?" That person went on to say that the authorities had been having trouble with "guys shooting birds." The notes aren't wildly exciting, but such textual evidence of an artist's process opens up his images and humanizes them.
As it is, this is an academic exhibition in which the photographer seems removed from the work. It's well worth seeing, however, if only for "Chicago Landscapes." Instead of farmland, the horizon is made of building tops, street scenes, railway lines and Lake Michigan. Like all of his gelatin silver prints, these shimmer with luxurious shades of black and white. Sinsabaugh absolutely captured the essence of Chicago, one of this country's most architecturally beautiful and recognizable cities. And his work reminds us of an irreducible fact: A horizon is inevitable no matter what it's made of.