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I’m friends with Rylan Steele, but I have never met his family or talked to him about this body of work. Once he told me: I don’t photograph people. Later, he told me: I’ve been photographing my son.
Yes, indeed. His son, but more than that, too. Rylan’s photographs capture Owen between the ages of 9 and 12, and show him in myriad circumstances: in his room, on the tennis court, in the pool, visiting historical sites with his father, rising from sleep in a hotel. Very often, they focus on Owen’s gaze, whether in exasperated contemplation of the photographer or inscrutable surveyance of the sea. But, like the sea, childhood and adolescence are well-trod territory, terrain riddled with clichés that are clichés precisely because they are true. The challenge, then, is not to see past them, but to deepen them and give them life through specificity, which Rylan’s photographs do, salvifically, through form. For despite the spelling bee and the stuffed animals, the chipped tooth and the sneakers oversized like puppy-dogs’ paws, it is the formal qualities of the photographs that do the heavy lifting: that tell of time’s linear march through their arrow-straight vectors; of the father’s wisdom though judicious symmetries; of roadblocks to come through occasional, shallow depths of field; and of still boundless aspirations through ascendant sightlines that measure wonder against defiant calculation.
With these tools in hand, Rylan’s photographs convey a child’s awakening to causality and sentience – or better and more religiously put, his mortifying fall to self-consciousness from another, comparatively unburdened state, where Owen’s younger sister for the moment remains. Poised in one photograph atop a pool-side slide, she is self-satisfied and unhurried. Owen prepares her way with water from a hose angled against its slope, but she occupies the peak of this slick incline with casual intractability, as if it were a sofa or the back seat of a gliding car. Consequently, in other photographs, Owen conveys a sense of resentment and exasperation. For having been happily innocent of dependence once himself, he is now aware of it as limitation, and, for a time, is stuck, a figure self-consciously in progress and in between, a predicament well described in another photograph that features him sitting beneath a tree’s heavy canopy amidst a smattering of its petals on the ground.
Rylan is fascinated by Stanley Kubrick, who was a photographer before making films I consider the best on record. Both are formalists, which means only that they place a heavy burden on form to articulate their content. And, here, this is especially apt, as the story of adolescence is the story of form, specifically, the body’s form as it evolves and assumes new meanings, both racing ahead of the child and simultaneously lagging behind. It’s hard to think of our bodies this way – as form – yet, it is second nature in a culture focused on beauty and the body-perfect. It is a particular accomplishment, then, that in these photographs the body remains what it maddeningly is for all of us: a locus of identity and a medium through which we speak and are spoken. Among other things, it is this we learn in adolescence; that as much as it is ours, our body is also theirs: a form they will readily interpret.
And, then, there is light. Photographers love to talk about light. And when they do, I like to listen. Unlike me, for whom light remains a largely invisible, experiential phenomenon like humidity or the vibrations caused by a passing bus, photographers see light and are always calculating its qualities. There are reasons for that, of course. It’s integral to their process, and hours of picture-making have taught them to anticipate its pictorial effect and see it as instrumental. As an art historian, I’m better at seeing light once it is arrested and in frame, and I am especially well equipped to contend with it when it appears as a motif that’s been put in service of an idea. This happens only a few times in Rylan’s work, as when a Promethean Owen harnesses fire – first with a match and then by the implied spectacle of the firework to come – or stands, in another photograph, with his head raised in bold contemplation of the sun in the context of its momentary eclipse. More often, light is less literary in Rylan’s work and not an implied or evident symbol. As with Kubrick, who was also maniacally focused on the affective qualities of light, that’s the good news, and one reason why we need images over and against the words that seek to translate them. At the limit of speech, the best pictures talk to us in ways that effect a pregnant silence. Writing this, I have tried repeatedly to speak of Owen’s hands in the photograph that depicts him looking at the darkened sun. I know they are a locus of meaning, that they convey something authentic, irreducible, and profound, but I cannot put words in their service. This is what makes a photograph a work of art; it is also what makes it a gift.
Plato banned artists from his ideal republic, but millennia ahead of film’s invention, he shared the photographer’s obsession with light. The sun, he said, is at once the source of all knowledge and light and is the condition of perception’s possibility. In this regard, it is also, as T.S. Eliot knew, an analogue for love and, in particular, the love of family, which words similarly fail to describe. Like the sun that infuses the Republic with light, this love is lived in, but not looked at or spoken. And so it is here. Of the light in these photographs, I cannot say more than this: it appears and illuminates the rest.
-- Isabelle Loring Wallace, Interim Co-Director, Lamar Dodd School of Art
Rylan Steele is an artist and associate professor in Columbus, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and two children. He received his MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. He has exhibited photographs in numerous regional and national exhibition spaces including the Georgia Museum of Contemporary Art, the Ogden Museum of Art, the Houston Center for Photography, and the Light Factory. Rylan has previously been a finalist for the Hudgens Prize and the Lange/Taylor Prize awarded by the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. He has participated in residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Hungarian Multicultural Center and the Carson McCullers Center. Aint-Bad Publications published his first monograph, Ave Maria, in 2016. Rylan’s most recent solo exhibition was installed at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.