Like many, I was introduced to Portlander Mark Hooper's photographs through his Lewis and Clark series, featured in the 2006 Oregon Biennial. Those sumptuous black-and-white images presented the titular explorers as a bumbling, suspender-clad pair, embarking on the impossible task of quantifying wilderness. Whether tape-measuring boulders or gathering water specimens in tin buckets, the two always appeared with their backs to Hooper's lens or their faces obscured. Fitting, then, that the project isn't really about Lewis and Clark at all; the expedition is merely the vehicle for Hooper's epistemological musings. These images are about the very human impulse to conquer through knowledge.
Hooper's new body of work, There: Here, marks a stylistic departure from his previous series, but does not waver from his preoccupation with the relationship between sight and knowledge. In these 10 enormous color prints, the sublimity of the Pacific Northwest's snaking rivers, mountain vistas, and sprawling beaches is replaced by more pedestrian locales: car-less parking lots, barren warehouse interiors, woodsy backyards. Further deflating the mythic proportions of the Lewis and Clark series, these scenes are populated by either an ordinary blond-mopped everyman figure or, in a few cases, an empty chair. Interestingly, when this figure is not conspicuously absent, he is constantly looking somewhere beyond the pictorial space. He continually keeps the viewer at a distance, left to wonder what unseen spectacle has captured his gaze. We can see him looking and we can speculate as to what he sees, but, in the end, the only thing we can be sure of is the limitation of our vantage point.
That Hooper uses photography to mull over this problem is particularly poignant. Photography is ostensibly a truth-telling media, capable of pinning down a fleeting instant with an exacting degree of objectivity. But here, the artist toys with that assumption in order to prove just how false it is. These images are not eyewitness accounts; they are painstaking constructions that are as powerfully seductive as Hooper's commercial photography. After all, seeing may be believing, but it certainly isn't a substitute for knowledge.