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Entering Kreft Center Gallery at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, one is immediately enveloped by clean white walls dotted uniformly with pops of color. The gallery feels cohesive and strictly controlled. The thirteen photographs comprising Seder Burns’ solo exhibition, Suburban Camouflage Detection, feature landscaped yards and rows of identical houses in suburban developments. Shot in the suburbs of Detroit and Los Angeles, the landscapes Burns selected as his subject represent the methodically constructed environments of suburbia—neighborhoods designed to provide residents a sense of safety and harmony within their communities
The conceptual grounding for this body of work, Burns explains, rests on the fact that he digitally recreated the effects of specially designed infrared film developed by Kodak during World War II. The film recorded living foliage in bright red hues, rendering it possible to see camouflaged areas that would otherwise be undetectable. Essentially, this kind of film distinctly separated the natural from the unnatural, making man-made elements stand out starkly against the foliage. To recreate this effect, Burns used a modified camera to capture both infrared and visible light, and digitally combined them by remapping one onto the other. Those areas that would have been exposed on the original Kodak film by infrared light are printed in a bright fuchsia-like tone, almost completely replacing the green trees, shrubs and grass.
The results are intoxicating. Whereas to the naked eye, natural green foliage would recede in space, here the magenta surroundings immediately lunge forward. Instead of the presumed serenity one expects from a traditional landscape, the vegetation reads as jarringly unnatural and harsh. With this surrealistic transformation, Burns convinces the viewer to reconsider what he or she sees. The manicured lawns read as artificial. The lush panoramas feel false. The typical battle between organic and synthetic elements is now gone. Instead, one sees the scenery as fully manufactured—created and pruned by urban planners, landscapers and architects.
Intriguingly, the film effect Burns mimics in these photos came into being during World War II. The era directly following the war is remembered for its vast suburban growth. The economic boom and population explosion required the creation of massive numbers of relatively inexpensive and quickly constructed homes. Large tracts of identical housing were manufactured in suburbs across the U.S., and their inhabitants often accepted a sense of uniformity both visually and socially. In these neighborhoods, it was one’s unspoken responsibility to avoid standing out from the crowd—and in order to do this, the lawn needed to be manicured, the landscaping had to be tended to—the property maintained quietly in line with the one next door. During that era, suburbanites were expected to conform into multiple iterations of the same entity. Americans were encouraged to be “Americans,” rather than individuals, at a time when national pride was at an all-time high and a sense of belonging was taking shape, though frequently at the expense of one’s independence.
For this reason, some of the most interesting moments in these photos are the places where that camouflage of uniform perfection reveals its flaws. In some instances, you can see the sprouts of pink weeds growing from cracks in the pavement. In others, patches of dirt show through on the magenta hillside where grass failed to grow. In yet another, the closely mowed lawn outside a fenced-off pool reveals the familiar yellow-brown of dead grass that results from a dry spell. Elsewhere in these images, we see a school playground with looming basketball hoops and a colorfully painted handball court with graffiti-tagged walls. Rows of cookie-cutter houses overlook the playground from the hillside behind it, providing a setting and a context for its imperfections. In Burns’ photos, the artifice of that era’s socially pre-approved vision of the American Dream becomes astoundingly clear. And subtly—but just as clearly—his photographs reveal the small cracks and failures of that vision coming apart over time.
Suburban Camouflage Detection is on view at the Kreft Center Gallery at Concordia University in Ann Arbor from
February 3, 2015 to March 13, 2015.
Joe Levickas is an artist, curator and arts professional living in Ann Arbor, MI. He earned his B.F.A. from University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in painting from Pratt Institute, and has lived and worked throughout the Midwest and Northeast. View more articles by Joe Levickas.