For Vaughn Wascovich, photography is a way of making sense of a place and its people.
The Youngstown-raised Wascovich currently teaches at Texas A&M-Commerce, but returned to his old home to display a photo series exploring his new one. For its first exhibition, the Cleveland Print Room is hosting Wascovich's Welcome to Hard Times, a documentation of rural Northeast Texas, particularly landscapes marked by human traces. Wascovich says the region is in time of rust and reevaluation.
The artist said that he doesn't shoot to "capture a moment," but to show—as much as is possible in a static image—a place and time in flux. The images tell of the region's storied past as well as its present, and give flinty but accepting assessments of its uncertain future.
"Ladonia Cemetery" likely carries the most ominousness of any piece in the show. In shades of gray, a bare tree raises arthritic branches over an open field. Only a few manmade block-shapes stand near its trunk. A fuzzy line of black trees splits the horizon. Over the whole scene, flecks of black swarm.
These last imperfections were engineered. Wascovich shot them with handmade pinhole cameras, which are essentially boxes into which a sheet of light-sensitive paper is propped up and shown on by sunlight squeezed through a nigh-invisibly small puncture.
This technology can produce clean images, but Wascovich says he does everything you're not supposed to do to his pictures. He mixes developing chemicals in the wrong order, applies some of them unevenly over the paper with spray bottles, and randomly applies other solutions which halt the development process.
Where the process halts, the black flecks appear. Their randomness reflects the external forces on the Texans who are Wascovich's real subjects. Flesh-and-blood humans are only pointed to by the objects they leave behind, from tire tracks to rusty silos. But these symbols of life are so vivid it is impossible not to identify the dramas they participated in.
"On the Road to Franklin" shows overgrown brush underneath a sky full of streaks dripping downwards like rain. The triangle of a house's pitched roof juts out a few feet above the grass. Some sort of square board flops on the ground off to the right. Presumably, the three-quarters demolished home is on a route to a municipality called "Franklin." The ruin has not been forgotten, but its presence is accepted.
In "Earth Movers, Rte. 11," a shovel-faced bulldozer is wreathed in flaming black splotches. White specks hang in the air sparks. Though the piece's drama comes primarily from random effects of its development process, the accidental inferno can still be interpreted as standing for the peril the tractor and its owner are in. Fire and the chemistry of photographic development are both roll ahead without, or in spite of, our direction.
"Bridge Over the Red River" stretches the titular span over the viewer's head, and beyond it to some point in the background. As in "Cooper Lake," wherein a watery horizon blurs into the sky and sun, Wascovich hints at human and inhuman grandeur. Though some things crumble, big beautiful things remain.
Wascovich leaves unsaid whether he sees this bigness as the future for Ladonia, Cooper, Horton Bottom and the other towns of East Texas. But he does betray affection for them.