The premise of J. Bennett Fitts' No Lifeguard on Duty—color photographs of empty motel swimming pools in depressed, barren landscapes—is so respectful of the history of photography as to be suffocatingly tiresome and clichéd. Ever since '70s photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz made it acceptable to take photos of parking lots and abandoned shopping centers under the umbrella of "landscape photography," grad students and young photographers have fallen over themselves to contribute their two cents to this well-worn genre. For instance: by taking photos of empty motel swimming pools in vacant, barren landscapes.
But Fitts has done the highly unlikely in this Quality Pictures show, and crafted a stunning and poetic series of photographs on this very subject. No Lifeguard on Duty transcends the pat-ness of its premise to become a gorgeous homage to the earth and sky, to man's futile manipulations of nature, to the latent narrative possibilities of dilapidated Americana, and yes, to the history of landscape photography itself.
Each photograph conforms to a basic template: The empty swimming pools of crappy old roadside lodges are photographed during the evening's twilight hour, when shadows disappear and color tones run long and vibrant. Each pool and landscape has its own characteristics—some hold small ponds of cola-colored rainwater; one has been filled entirely with dirt and a fresh coat of turf. But rather than becoming attached to any one individually, we begin to contemplate the proliferation of these small, failed oases. Once signifiers of a uniquely post-War strain of manifest destiny, the pools now lay stagnant and untended.
Fitts is a romantic at heart, though, and his photographs are as much about dusks and cloudscapes and palm trees and desert atmospheres as they are about swimming pools. Like Caspar David Friedrich paintings, the foregrounded subject matter exists primarily to facilitate a sublime vision of the land (as well as to remind us of our humble position in the enduring scope of nature). Fitts' best images are as gorgeous as any Richard Misrach landscape, and demand to be seen in person, where their delicate tonalities and stories might suggest far more than their subjects might ever let on.