by Charles Traub
An apt title, where people seem out of place or unnecessary or, indeed, unlikely in the frame in which they are caught. Abby Robinson has laser eyes attached to a camera—a kind of gun, not shooting blanks, but often shooting at the blank world. The game is to catch the moment, not to kill the subject, and it keeps coming in any landscape, in any space Robinson roams. It’s a question of getting it just right, scoring the “zinger.” Why play? Because she can.
Landscape is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. Photographers come back to it again and again. Today it’s all color, but I like the mystery, even the nostalgia, of the old black-and-white world. Everything’s not so green and blue. The gray scale differentiates, but also equalizes. It is where the artificial and the real collide. Maybe it’s a real palm tree, or maybe plastic; it’s hard to tell. So what if it’s a house with a yard? Maybe it wasn’t green at all. Why is a swimming pool resting upon a bank of trees? Its plastic form speaks more than its color. Was it blue? So why do you take such pictures? “I like being there, in a landscape with no identity. Or perhaps I make them seem identity-less. It’s a reason to travel, isn’t it? I take something away, but nothing really; and I don’t have to account for myself. No one asks me if I’m shy. I am, you know. So I’m in there and I’m out of there—distant and familiar.”
What makes it a picture, a photograph, a work of art? The meaning it gives each viewer resides in the subtle relationship of the alien figure placed just so. Placed? Found? No. Willed? Better yet, seen and caught. In Abby’s case, the figure needs to be there. I think it’s probably her. The figure changes the landscape, gives it scale, makes it ironic, and suggests that human and nature are really at odds; as sure as we witness it, we change it. What’s depicted here has nothing to do with fact, and a lot to do with experience. And by looking, we cultivate the landscape. We talk about civilization.
The man is fixing the roof, or sweeping the artificial turf, or playing in the openness of a dusty, ugly field. All that activity has something to do with civilization; but nature’s a bitch. She’ll take us over, sooner or later. And we really do pass through, like some kind of alien, leaving our artifacts and ruins behind. The sojourner here has created the art of her presence. Once in a prolonged illness, Robinson photographed from her bed; that’s when she knew she was a photographer.
She said it best trying to quote the opening lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: “Traveling with the camera is like having a ticket to a carnival.” He didn’t exactly say that; for our purposes, Abby said it better. “Yup, that’s what’s out there, whether it’s Houston or Cairo, Morocco or Florida…New Jersey. We’re absurd characters on a midway we think we possess.” She also said that her travel experiences are both “awesome and awful.” The point of looking, the point of traveling, the point of witnessing is to understand the “blankness of it all.” I think it’s like shooting lasers into space. What did you find out there, over all these years of inveterate travel? Living in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, etc. What did you find out there? “Just the ordinariness of things.” That’s why you have such soft tonalities? “Yeah, it renders the blankness. Nevertheless I’d go everywhere and anywhere, to see what’s there. Everything out there is weird. You wouldn’t have to construct it for a carnival…just see it, travel to it.” That all sounds a little glib. “No, not glib. I’m really very excited.” It just makes you “come home”; if I understand her, I now quote Thackeray, “When you come home, you sit down in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind, apply yourself to your books, or your business…“Would the space invader return to Planet X so content?”
I find this work both melancholy and mirthful. That’s what I like about it.