Review by Jan Tumlir, Art and Text, April 2000

The CinemaScope, wide-screen format was introduced in 1950s to provide film
with its own unique space and thereby give it a leg-up on the competition.
In the dramatic sweep of the newly elongated horizon line there was to
appear something essentially cinematic; something essentially modern,
moreover, carried on the separatist currents that drew a small portion of
each medium inward as high art while the rest continued to flow outward as
kitsch. The wide-screen thus looked forward to an autonomous cinema, but at
the same time it looked back toward photography and its various precursors:
the panorama and diorama. It looked everywhere but the here and now, which
was effectively in thrall to the "idiot box."

A related sense of temporal dislocation haunts John Divola's recent
panoramic photographs of Los Angeles street scenes. These are
caught-unwittingly, I want to say-between the spectacular aspirations of so
much contemporary art that concerns itself with film and the forcefully
subdued, humdrum atmospherics of a "New Topographics" style documentary
practice. Divola's new work is rife with contradictions, although most of
them are shielded from view by an almost too-composed, too-stable aesthetic
façade. The panorama finds its ideal object in the low-lying, horizontal
extension of LA's industrial architecture: a regular procession of
single-story, multi-purpose "units"-brick or stucco boxes,
basically-distinguished only by their color and signage, the configuration
of doors and windows (if any), the presence or absence of protective
shutters, screens, wrought iron grid-work with the occasional baroque
flourish, and so on. Pressed together side by side they form a straight band
bisecting the image, breaking it up into color-coded "strata." Progressing
upward from the lowermost edge, we pass through the dark gray asphalt of the
street itself, the lighter gray of the sidewalk, the drab palimpsest of
continually weathered and repainted storefronts, and then the occasional
burst of color courtesy of parked or passing cars, dazzling reds, blues,
greens, yellows, echoed by the curbside paint, or by the bright skein of
commercial logos and insignia up above, or higher still by the alternately
saturated and washed out California skies. The buildings line up all the way
down the streets, avenues and boulevards, as do the photographs
"themselves." Although they come in two distinct formats, regular and large,
their essentially modular character suggests a process of endless
reconfiguration-like Ruscha's "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" set on

Divola's new works are part conceptual, part commemorative, like so much of
the photography to follow in the wake of August Sander and Albert
Renger-Patsch. Bodies and buildings are here subjected to a very similar
sort of dispassionate, depthless gaze. It is obviously not the ostensibly
timeless and transcendent interior that is being sought in these pictures,
but rather the wholly immanent details of the outer shell-precisely that
which in reality is most superficial and fleeting, in other words. To arrest
this sort of transience has always been dear to the cause of photography, a
relatively "straight" application of the apparatus which signals a
substantial departure from the more subjectively oriented manipulations of
Divola's earlier work. Yet, upon closer inspection, the first tentative
signs of a through-line become evident, and these are asserted with mounting
emphasis the longer one looks. As opposed to the afore-mentioned piece by Ed
Ruscha, for instance, there is no indication of system or exhaustiveness
here. No specific terrain is delimited and the photographic map consequently
remains somewhat generic (somewhat useless). Yet due precisely to this
apparent abdication of purpose, Divola's images are sometimes allowed to
reach for the paradoxical authenticity of dreams, promoting an experience
both more and less real than real.

This effect is achieved through a subtle digital tweaking of the
photograph's known optical and chemical formulas. The images are taken by an
analogue camera and then printed on standard Type C paper; in-between these
stages, however, the negative is digitized and "corrected"-perspective
distortions are ironed-out, colors are heightened and rendered more uniform,
lines are sharpened, details brought out, etc. These various maneuvers are
registered vaguely, through just the sort of perception that the word
"uncanny" was coined for-a sense of familiarity that trails off into
ambivalence, becoming its opposite. Divola's photographs do not serve to
ground or orient the viewer, and are ultimately less occupied with rendering
the topographical differences of their various milieux than their inherent
sameness. Accordingly, they do not "add up," horizontally, to a sense of
place, and ask instead to be stacked, vertically, as variations on a theme.
The registration point is located at the dead-center of each and every
image; another paradox, because, although Divola has here traded the
stabilizing effects of single-point perspective for an experience of
restless lateral slippage, or scanning, he has nevertheless held on to a
vanishing point of sorts. This is literally the door that opens at the heart
of every picture, to momentarily still the roving eye with the promise of
escape: into a church, a tarot card-reader's parlour, a bar or stip-club…
Anywhere but here.