“The taste for the useful predominates over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man,” writes Alexis de Tocqueville at the opening of his description of the American artist in Democracy in America , an observation buttressed by the appearance of industrial novelties like the typewriter, sewing machine, and the soda fountain then emerging in the mid-1800s. When the French historian first set foot upon American soil in 1831 he was confronted with a country whose infancy enabled the creative impulse of its people to become visible, an impulse usurped only by what de Tocqueville deemed America’s most primitive instinct: industry.
Beauty, in the American milieu at least, waited till the work was done.
That photography was borne amidst this golden age of industrialism at once refracts the image of an unadorned American landscape of labor while providing in simulacra some proof of our industrial past. As Louis Daguerre experimented with silver coated copper plates that would come to be known as Daguerreotypes, an invention encapsulating the industrial urge alongside the aesthetic came into being with the creation of the camera. Four years after the American artist had been relegated to industry in the publication of Democracy in America in 1835, the spread of Daguerreotype photography and its successor, the wet plate collodion, would confirm our addiction to innovation and renew our “love of the beautiful.”
Last October Robert C. Malmberg set out to capture in collodion a country whose bounty proffered to our every industrial impulse. His images, like our history, reveal the intermingling nature of function and form, the useful and the beautiful, the past and the present.
Lighting out to western territory in a Jeep Wrangler and a 5×8 U-Haul renovated as a portable darkroom, Malmberg headed toward Jackson, Wyoming with a tub of large format tin types and the objective of adding a new body of work to a growing portfolio of wet plate portraiture. The opportunity to expand his aesthetic was found in an abandoned settlement in Teton National Park where the remnants of a sunken settlement offered Malmberg a unique vista of the American countryside. Shrouded beneath the Teton range, the remains of unknown men’s movements came into relief alongside the sagebrush fields and glacial streams to create a contemporary, if dystopian, Arcadia.
For Malmberg, the refuse lent something special to the open landscape. “It was interesting to find old technology, things that were left behind,” Malmberg explains, “and to enter into a space that somebody worked hard to live in, fight for, and then leave behind in this landscape.”
While in Wyoming, Malmberg woke up at 6 AM every morning to prepare the chemicals for the day’s plates before setting off across a landscape suffused with that melancholy reserved for machines in disrepair. His imagery inverts the Tocquevillian insight into the American preference for the useful by bringing into the foreground emblems of industry come to past, the obsolescence of old equipment now betrayed by the permanence of nature’s beauty. That Malmberg insists upon thrusting these dead relics of industrialization into center frame forces the viewer to appreciate the invulnerability of a landscape whose muted strength seems to embrace the corroded artifact. Amid the interplay of each image surfaces the original dualism between the useful and the beautiful—our twin impulses caught gleaming across a collodion plate—one interrupting the connotation of the other to impress upon us a portrait of our past, rediscovered here, now.
“I didn’t know I was going to find these things, but then I found that the trash was what really excited me,” Malmberg remembers.
It’s not that Malmberg’s western portfolio is simply an indictment of industrialism, a mere unveiling of utilities aged to become memento mori of American enterprise; rather, by dislocating something useful and placing it in a Wyoming repose of uselessness, his images awaken us to the sacredness of common objects. Just as the poet pitied the bathtub for its forced embrace of the human form, so too does Malmberg’s work plea for an attentiveness to material things. It is in these things that the brevity of our tools, time, and attention linger until becoming, if only for a moment, useful in their beauty.
 de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated by James T. Schleifer. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010, Vol. 3.
Robert C. Malmberg’s current collodion work is on display as part of the San Francisco Centennial Gallery Exhibition at the Mosser Hotel in downtown San Francisco. His photography may also be seen online at http://www.robertmalmberg.com/.