All the good people of the Vermilion Valley Resort seem to be named "Butch." It's a mountain town where strong men fish and kill bears and strong women serve beers or something. It's also where Dave Mau has been working for the past six summers. Mau is a bail bondsman, North County legend and photographer whose "VVR" works at the Biola University Art Gallery show just his kind of folks. Are his photos ironic and condescending? Nope. Does he crowd his compositions like a crazy woman's basement? Oh, yeah!
For such a godforsaken place, there's lots of stuff at the VVR. In almost every one of Mau's smallish prints, things crowd the foreground, the background and all the grounds. Butch Wiggs at Poker Game shows the inside of the VVR store, with deer and bass mounted on the wall, a Pepsi machine taking up some real estate, and a bunch of folks sitting pensively around a table that's positively lousy with crushed Bud Lite cans.
Fishing on Edison Lake shows firred mountains in the distance, while Mau's three buddies jostle up to the camera like they're about to eat him. For all the mountain air, it's claustrophobic in that small boat. Roping Practice shows a lasso blurring and snapping like an arc of electricity. It also features a fence, some shacks, a bunch of trees, some crates littering the grounds, a couple of men, a road . . . Really, all it's missing is some dead stuff, but that comes later.
The same day I saw Mau's work, Phil Marquez stopped by my house to show me slides of his upcoming MFA exhibition. Marquez drove 10,000 miles this summer, shooting streams and mountains, and his photos and Mau's couldn't be more different. Marquez's are glossy and loaded with color; Mau's are grainy and small and deal only in gray tones. Marquez aims his camera only when the vista matches his demanding aesthetic, and he produces minimalist series of like compositions. He shoots beauty, often marred by the gravel piles of encroaching development. Mau is almost Hemingwayesque, manly and concentrated and without time for fluff.
The kind of people who think photos are documents of truth are most likely the same sweetly trusting fools—er, "folks"—who think network news is unbiased. It's exactly the same fallacy at work in both cases: real truth includes what's cropped out of an image or left on the cutting room floor.
The truth Marquez sees includes an ordered universe, where almost mathematical formulae show up for his camera. One beautiful series includes just three elements: sky, field and road. The roads work best when they're lonely dirt tracks leading from the middle of the print to the horizon, glowing warm and tan. He finds an echo of the same composition in the front yard of a suburban home, but there it's the tan driveway leading to a split-level abode.
Mau's aesthetic is more catholic: he doesn't order compositions for his lens but shoots damn near everything that hoves into his field of vision. It's more documentarian than Marquez's—and more visceral. One could say it's more honest, but then that leads to a whole slew of questions: Can one really say it's dishonest to frame a shot well and produce an ordered and peaceful composition? It's artifice, certainly, from the Latin for "craftsmanship." But it's artifice without being artificial. You can't call pictures of mountains and streams "artificial" just because they're well-shot. Well, you can, but I would laugh at you.
Anyone who's taken the most basic of sociology classes knows the subjectivity of our truths (please read Max Weber's "View of Objectivity in the Social Sciences"). Let's leave aside the issue of whether one can even believe a photograph nowadays—digital manipulation moving the pyramids closer together so they can fit into the frame, or that guy smiling on the roof of Tower One as a passenger barrels in below him. It's already been covered ad nauseam, and I don't really care. But manipulations aside, people do believe photographs. They believe that the flat lens of the camera shows the world as it truly is. But it's where the artist chooses to aim his camera that gives you your truth. Is it the small group of Palestinians laughing and cheering after the World Trade Center attacks? Or the much larger groups who held vigils at which nobody took pictures? If Palestinians hold a vigil and nobody tapes it, does it make a sound?
Mau's Weltanschauung and Marquez's are wholly different views of the same thing. Marquez's world is lonely and sparkling but encroached upon. Mau's is busy and dirty and guileless and fun. And sometimes it has dead bears.
"VVR" at the Biola University Annex Gallery, 13800 Biola Ave., La Mirada, (562) 944-0351, ext. 5655. Through Oct. 26. Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-sun., 1-5 p.m. Free.