There’s a fairly well-known image by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich called Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818); it shows the wanderer, standing atop a rocky promontory with his back to us looking over a sublimely vast and windswept landscape of rocks, and trees, possibly a distant castle or two, all of it involved in rolling waves of fog. De Lory’s work reminds me a little of this painting for its similarities (the rocks, the trees, the fog) but also for its differences. The focal point of the Friedrich image is the human subject perceiving, pondering the turbulent mystery of nature. But human figures are virtually absent from the images de Lory has assembled for this show. The only body I could find appears on the left side of the Capitol ReefSaunter triptych: a human silhouette dwarfed by precipitously high, black V-shaped canyon walls. The figure really is tiny: it is as though the sublimity of the natural landscape has reduced the human subject to an insect’s stature and status.
It is hard to tell where that figure is headed. If walking away from the viewer, it would move out of the shadowy depths of the canyon only to run up against a great bright wall of rock that rises up from the bottom center of the image. It is the sort of obstacle these photographs confront us with, in one way or another, over and over again. The focal point of Balance, for example, is a boulder embedded in dirt upon which is perched a small rock cairn – a rare sign of human presence – that the photographer has centered precisely, like a puzzle piece, to block the view we would have through a triangular gap between the boulders beyond.
We encounter a more figurative sort of blockage in Signs in the Woods, a diptych, whose title pointedly turns two random arrangements of thin leafless branches into the unintelligible: unnervingly particular, vaguely familiar, ultimately unreadable. Nature as a foreign language.
These images of blockage sometimes take more ethereal forms. In Thermo Landscape, one of the more intriguing pictures in this collection, what appears to be a placid image of lake, hills, trees and sky is all but blotted out by clouds of spectrous vapor. The beauty and perversity of this is much accentuated by the fact that it is one of only four color images included in the entire show, for the colors in this photograph – the blue of the sky, the green of the leaves – are barely discernable, as though their only purpose is to remind us of what is being withheld behind that powdery curtain.
The images respond to the occlusions and obfuscations that they themselves seek out in particular ways. The footpath in the image called Cliff Path seems atypical in this regard: running straight into an obstacle, a huddle of boulders, it stops, then makes a neat detour. But de Lory’s images don’t tend to emulate this pragmatic path. They linger, they stare, and sometimes seem to sink into the scenes they confront, just as we might imagine that tiny figure in the Capitol ReefSaunter triptych walking toward us, rather than away, passing thus from the light into thick deep darkness.
This process of “sinking in” is demonstrated most explicitly in a sequence of three images arranged to be read left to right like a narrative. The Juan de Fuca Strait, Fog Seriesleads us headlong into obscurity. The image that in #1 draws the eye inward along a vertical stripe of rippling sunlight to the horizon is incrementally obliterated in #2 and #3 by thick layers of fog. Similarly in the Fog Trees triptych we find ourselves in a forest surrounded by supple saplings that seem to writhe in a bright milky mist.
Even de Lory’s Self Portrait - like others of the landscapes, seascapes, cloudscapes he has brought together for this exhibition - seems ultimately to seek a kind of dispersal or dissolution. Whereas Friedrich’s Wanderer stands distinctly separate and peers perhaps a little imperiously down upon the natural scene, Self Portrait records only traces of de Lory: the photographer’s shadow spreads itself like a gray film over and beyond the slabs of rock directly in front of him, and is dismembered and distorted by the hard rough surfaces of the landscape, or sometimes dissolved into that landscape’s own shadows.
In a similar spirit, Cut Brush Heart depicts a valentine heart on a pile of refuse struggling to retain some recognizable shape. Ghost Pine, shows us a small pine tree, utterly shattered, its bone-white remains resting atop an ashen conical silhouette vaguely, eerily suggesting some kind of catastrophe. Or consider the subject of Desert Dust Storm: the proverbial road to nowhere, a road that leads, seductively, to dust and desolation.