This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2021 show PLEASERE TURNCART SHERE featuring the photographic works of Nicholas Seitz.
Consider 840 photographs of a shopping cart corral.
For any viewer, this might be a big ask. Yet, the particular ‘bigness’ of the task might come as a surprise. There is the obvious bigness–the fact that the endurance necessary for Nicholas Seitz to amass such a collection of images translates to some measure of endurance to view them all–but there is more. First, there is the breadth of variety that his camera was able to find. This is, at least, a true accomplishment. Second, there is the depth of thoughtful meditation and emotional richness that these images warrant in their sum. Therein lies the potential to be caught off guard: Who knows to greet the day with any expectation of being deeply moved by a cart corral?
Seitz certainly had his suspicions. The end product of his effort seems to capture the starring object from every angle imaginable, at different times of the day, through various weather conditions. The photographs (as we assume photographs to do) extend a kind of knowledge of the thing that Seitz ascertained directly at the time he pressed the shutter button. But the kind of knowledge at play is not merely the result of thorough documentation–factual, detached, scientific. Instead, one comes away from the body of work with a sense of interpersonal intimacy. Such knowledge is dynamic, tacit, and emotional, but not without some of the tedium associated with the first type of knowledge. In this way, knowing a cart corral bears an odd resemblance to knowing a spouse over time.
What could warrant such strong anthropomorphism? It is a basic rule of image-making that any vertical on a plane suggests a figure in a landscape. However, there is a great difference between the bare signifier, ‘figure’, and the empathetic ‘body’ and/or ‘person’ that make up a portrait. The corral project includes many poignant shots to close the gap: we see the camera closely inspect a patch of rust on a curved steel arm, like a mother kissing a scraped knee. Puckered weld joints look as soft as the crease in your arm. Zooming out, the structure reclines with the static dignity of a Henry Moore but the emaciated sorrow of a Giacometti. Sometimes, the sense of human scale shifts, and the corral becomes the frame or stage for another personal drama: a soft-footed insect, a passing leaf. Even this perspective is personal, as many cultures have associated looming landmarks with maternity. Finally, there is a strange, psychological intensity to the fact that the corral speaks–raising its signpost without a soul in sight.
In images where the corral is the tiniest detail in the larger desolate parking lot, the sense of scale shifts again. Even more so where the sky is in view and a supermoon looms at an unimaginable distance. Here, the corral becomes a ruckenfigur–a device in German Romanticism for creating a human entry-point to a sublime landscape. The landscape is the focus, but the ruckenfigur stands one step ahead of the viewer as a fellow witness to a reality capable of overwhelming them both.
The banal, deteriorating, constructed environment of the corral seems to be as far as one can imagine from a Romantic landscape. Nevertheless, the invitation to identify with the corral still occasions the thought that all people are placed. Contingent and contributing in location–subject to time, present to both glory and decay. In the digital space, there are no landmarks to serve as a reference point for the passage of time or distance. In an age when so many waking hours are logged online, it might be prudent to let corral-vision take over from time to time.
Let’s extend that thought. The infinite scroll renders us inundated with data yet stunted in our ability to sustain attention toward anything. What can it mean to add one image to this dissociative pile, let alone 840? As it turns out, the corral photos encourage a reformed viewing towards the ends of attending to place. Looking at and through the corral over so many photographs demands patience but begets rewards–even surprises, which deliver like gifts.
What’s the point of developing such a deep relationship to a shopping cart corral? Of laboring in love with it, as an attractive other? Consider again the implorative on the sign. Please and Thank you. With the shopping center closed, the original function of the text is nullified. Now the words echo over an abandoned lot, to the witness of trees and asphalt and Seitz’s camera. In this desperate loneliness, politeness is not required.
An honest Please only arises out of lack. Nature persists, and the camera cropping makes for satisfying compositions, but neglect is still ugly. The landscape aches under the sun. Please is also directed interpersonally, to connect with an open hand to provide. The best the viewer may provide is attention. But this offering–sympathy for the lonely brokenness–is the beginning of a comfort that flows both ways.
A Thank you, consummate gratitude, is likewise interpersonal. The corral has received your attention, and we are told that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Some photographs of the corral are truly beautiful, even dazzling: the parking lot transformed by diamond raindrops in suspense. Hints of red-hot sunset illuminating a steel beam. A distant bird of prey soars in the frame.
We fall in love with the corral and it’s little life story not to serve it as an end in itself, but to take part in its emphatic presence. Such a presence–personal, placed, attentive, and vulnerable–is a necessary prerequisite for knowing and being known. Seitz takes us deep into the inscape of a thing and its environment. He invites us to LOOK LOOK LOOK. Look until your eyes blur and marvel at the colors running together. Be sensitized, be humanized, even by taking a private-eye view at something that never really asked to be seen.