- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000


Photographer Allen Dutton set out to capture the heart of Arizona in highly unorthodox ways some 30 years ago.
He has been extraordinarily successful, as his show opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art demonstrates.
Exhibit co-curator Paul Roth, who grew up in Tucson, Ariz., says he believed that Arizona was impossible to capture photographically, especially the tensions between man and desert. That was until he saw Mr. Dutton's photographs of the arid, rugged environment and the cities and suburbs that grew there. "The desert might well have seemed like another planet for the early settlers, and in many ways it seems that way today," the curator says.
The photographer succeeds in ways others have not. He conveys the wonder and bizarreness of Arizona by using cumbersome 8-by-10-inch and 11-by-14-inch large-format cameras set up in the flatbed of his pickup truck. This allows for the precision of detail that is one of the hallmarks of his art. It also permits him to freeze time.
Mr. Dutton combines a documentary approach with surrealism and playful humor. The title of the show at the Corcoran, "Strange but True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton," could not be more appropriate.
The photographer is deeply serious about documenting the history of his home state and has given about 8,000 8-by-10-inch and 200 11-by-14-inch negatives to the Arizona Historical Foundation. Yet he also captures the humor of its colored-gravel landscaping, sculpted bushes and retirement communities like Sun City.
He worked from 1960 to 1982 as an art and photography teacher at Phoenix College, where he taught future Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker and actor Nick Nolte. Since then, he has concentrated on the Arizona series and on painting and making pottery. His influences include Eastern spiritualism, surrealism and documentary camera work by other photographers.
Mr. Dutton, 78, with his flowing white beard, can be both dignified and outrageous. He politely asks permission when he photographs people. Yet he fills his house with pictures of rhinoceroses and once did yoga headstands to impress his teacher, the famed photographer Minor White.
Mr. White interested him in Eastern concepts of time and change and how time works in photography. Mr. Dutton wanted to show the changes brought about in Arizona and used "re-photography" or "re-documentation" to do this. He traveled to sites where photographers had worked before and created new images of the earlier views. He wanted the viewer to think what happens as time passes.
He pairs these old views with his own "re-photographed" images in the exhibit's "Then and Now" section for some of the most moving photographs of the show.
Mr. Dutton found the 1910 photograph "Phoenix, 1st Avenue and Washington Street" and re-photographed the spot in 1979 and again this February.
The 1910 photograph shows two buildings with extraordinarily handsome architecture with pillars, domed windows, striped awnings and ironwork balconies. A palm tree gracefully thrusts up at the left of the photograph.
Brace yourself for the 1979 image. The graceful building at left is now a concrete-and-glass "box"; the one at right now is just as uninteresting.
Mr. Dutton shot this year's view with a network of gently bending trees that gives a gracefulness to the scene along with the delicate silhouettes of a new high-rise at right.
Two other paired photos are even more dramatic. The photographer found the 1900 "Phoenix, Dust Devil on North Central Avenue" at the Sharlot Hall Historical Society. A wide dirt road narrows dramatically at the point where the dust devil, or whirlwind, hits the ground. The dust devil is in the shape of an upside-down triangle that mirrors that of the road.
Standing at the same spot in 1979 as the earlier photographer, Mr. Dutton pictures an ugly scene of highways, gas stations, advertising marquees and traffic signs. Only a curved, landscaped traffic island with a thrusting palm tree gives it a measure of grace.
The pair of photos showing the greatest changes is of "Ajo." The older image is of the city of Ajo as a 1900 trading post with men readying donkeys and horses. Mr. Dutton's of 1979 shows the same place, now a huge, open-pit mine with its inner contours swirling into a dark pit. The photographer was unable to stand at the same place as the earlier one, which gives a certain dislocation to the view.
In works such as these, we wonder what the photographer is telling us. Is change inevitable, and is it good or bad? Is life going out of balance with a kind of folly? Are we as ephemeral to the extent that time is?
The series on the retirement community of Sun City also deals with the passing of time but in a more humorous way. Mr. Dutton did his own re-photographing here. He first photographed Joe and Marie Moffitt at 9308 Hidden Valley Circle in February 1985 and returned in May 1999 to capture Barbara Luttmann.
Sun City residents concentrate on gardening with what Mr. Roth calls "great creativity and humor" and are proud of their community. The Moffitts lovingly grew a tree and carefully shaped it into a dome atop a small trunk. They raked the colored gravel of their "lawns."
The property had changed by 1999. The Moffitts are gone — is Mr. Dutton talking about the inevitability of death? — and Miss Luttmann has replaced them. The tree is still sculpted but has grown fuller and higher to reach above the the roof line. The "lawn" is carefully raked.
The exhibit's third section, of Mr. Dutton's single photos, shows the preoccupation of Arizona residents with desert plants. Perhaps they represent life in this thirsty environment. Many, such as the cactuses in "Phoenix, 1-17 and Carefree Highway, Prisoners of the Subdivision Wars," are being moved to decorate subdivisions and golf courses.
Nowhere is the tension between man and the desert better pictured than in "Phoenix, Adobe Dam and 35th Avenue, Looking East." A subdivision was built cheek-by-jowl with the desert. Only the subdivision wall separates them.
These places do exist. "I grew up in one," Mr. Roth says. This image and Mr. Dutton's other photos clearly reveal the vulnerability of the land and the danger to it from its inhabitants.

WHAT: "Strange but True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Ave. at 17th St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until Nov. 13

TICKETS: Admission by suggested donation of $3 adults, $1 seniors and students and $5 family groups

PHONE: 202/639-1700

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