Photographer Carlos Diaz has taught at College for Creative Studies for the past 32 years — long enough to shape and influence an entire generation of Detroit photographers, and mentor them in a medium that has changed wildly thanks to advancing technology.
Before digital photography was even a glimmer, Diaz was engaged in an analog form of photo collage, painstakingly layering hand-cut elements from old patent manuals atop photographic images of Coney Island, to create “invented landscapes” that nonetheless speak to reality.
A selection of these invented landscapes of Coney Island images, as well as others from Diaz’s oeuvre, are on display at David Klein Gallery in downtown Detroit. “Carlos Diaz: Spaces & Spectacle,” a 35-year retrospective of Diaz’s work, opens on Saturday and continues through June 10.
In addition to his imagined landscapes, Diaz is showing parts of his 2008 “Carnival Midway” series, which features unadulterated black-and-white photographs of empty carnival machines and food stands; his 1980-1983 “Wade Carnival Shows” series, which capture typically invisible or socially suspect carnival workers in flattering and uncompromising portraits; and his 2012-2014 “Rouge Series,” which portrays equipment and environmental tableaux from in and around Detroit’s Cody-Rouge area
“We first looked at his pieces that were in the DIA,” says David Klein Gallery’s director of contemporary art, Christine Schefman, referring to Diaz’s contributions to the DIA”s 2011 “Detroit Revealed” group exhibition. Diaz’s series, “Beyond Borders,” documented the vivid yards of Southwest Detroit. One of these works is part of the retrospective at David Klein.
“When we were moving down here (to the gallery’s new Detroit location), we wanted to have more of a Detroit presence, because we feel like people are interested in Detroit,” says Schefman. “But I had know about this (“Invented Landscapes”) work 13, 14 years ago. I had seen it, and I liked those pieces.”
In some sense, the collage elements of “Invented Landscapes” make them stand out from the rest of Diaz’s work, which is much more documentary in nature. But in reality, each body of work on display is exceptional in its own way, and also part of a unified set of interests, and largely avoids human subjects.
The “Rouge Series” is the most formal of the works, and — with the exception of the single “Beyond Borders’ selection— contains the only images in color. “Wade Carnival Shows” is the only series that features standard portraiture, with Diaz’s clear preference for landscapes and inanimate forms evident in most of his other work. But “Beyond Borders” proves that there’s more than one way to take a portrait, and a look at a wider selection of the series demonstrates the power of personal landscape in capturing their owner’s personalities without ever taking a human subject. It is “Invented Landscapes,” however, that offers a peek into the deeper interests at play.
Diaz’s history as a mechanical draftsman and designer, prior to his fine art career, is evident in his interest in industrial landscapes and mechanisms. In this respect, his factory settings are little different from his carnival settings — both being mechanical systems, for industry or leisure. Even the carnival workers that he captures are part of the mechanism, just as front yards contribute to the apparatus of a neighborhood. Diaz’s desire to highlight these workings comes through clearly in “Invented Landscapes,” which interposes the patent process drawings on the finished landscape. Because the collage elements are a different tone and medium, they stand out, reminding us that the constructed landscapes we see are finished products that conceal an astonishing amount of inner workings.
These works are also prescient in their anticipation of digital photography as a common medium. The full series of “Invented Landscapes” are being collected in a special edition book by Obscura Land — a fine art photography subscription service that attempts to combat the loss of the photograph as a physical object by producing limited-edition series of art books, prints, and other ephemera for their subscribers. The project was co-developed by Daniel Eller, a former student of Diaz’s who attended CCS in the early ’90s.
“My initial black-and-white photography class was taught by Carlos, and we stayed in contact for almost 27 years,” says Eller, who describes Diaz as being extremely influential in how he thought about photography.
“Carlos is the one who taught me the art of black-and-white printing, and then my very first exposure to fine art, professional aesthetics of photography,” says Eller, a graphic and web designer who was also an early adopter of digital photography. The Obscura Land book will feature reproductions of “Invented Landscapes,” with a higher-tier limited edition that includes original works and a print by Diaz.
When someone has been around as long as Diaz, they run the risk of becoming part of the landscape, themselves. The show at David Klein and the book by Obscura Land present opportunities to observe Carlos Diaz as an artist, and as a sometimes-invisible mechanism that has shaped the landscape of Detroit photography for decades.
‘Carlos Diaz, Spaces & Spectacle’
Opens Saturday with 6-8 p.m. reception
Continues through June 10
David Klein Gallery
1520 Washington Blvd. Detroit
More information about the special edition book can be found at the Obscura Land website.
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