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Bill Dane’s History of the Universe

“What’s that?” is not an uncommon response for viewers confronting one of Bill Dane’s photographs. This is a curious question, given the fact that Dane approaches the “real world”with his camera as squarely as Atget, Evans, or Friedlander. He photographs what exists, with no manipulation or fabrication. So if the world does not make much sense in Dane’s photographs, it is not his fault. He presents things as he sees them, and should not be held accountable for the unspeakably creepy landscape made of colored cotton (plate 21), nor for the misaligned segments of a Victorian dinner party (plate 7)—much less for the fact that the hosts’s carafe appears to be pouring no wine.

Dane rarely allows considerations of time or place to restrict his subject matter. Matthew Brady may have been limited to Civil War, but Dane’s openness to all possibilities allows him to address such wide-ranging subjects as the myth of the Wild West (plates 17 and 22), Moses delivering the Ten Commandments (plate 13), and The End of Life as We Know It (plate 20). Clearly no subject is safe from Dane, least of all one which someone has bothered to depict before him. Consider his photographs of the excruciatingly bad painting of the Golden Gate Bridge (plate 19). We would not be surprised to learn that the painting was found, and photographed, in a dumpster. This particular view, as seen from the Marin Headlands, is grist for the mill of tens of thousands of tourist photographs every year. Dane accentuates the postcard motif by giving us an ersatz sunset reflected in the water, the by-product of the camera flash he makes no attempt to hide. No one would say of this photograph that is the next best thing to being there.

Of course Dane’s subject is how theses things are depicted as much as it is about the “subjects” themselves. Thus plate 19 may be in varying degrees about (a) the Golden Gate Bridge, (b) the torn and taped painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, (c) the strangely inept way in which the Golden Gate Bridge is painted, and (d) the way it all looks photographed. Try as we might, it is difficult to find plausible reasons why many such things exist as they do. Dane’s universe is a place where appearances must be questioned, then questioned again. His work finally reminds us that the world is often and inexplicable place, and for our own piece of mind (and pleasure) we might was well get used to it.—from the introduction by Jeffrey Fraenkel