Skyscraper City

On Saturday, December 4, Betz Gallery (1208 W. Gray) hosted an opening reception for an exhibit of color and black-and-white photography by Houstonian Tom Haymes, “Skyscraper City,” which will run through December 23, takes the Houston’s tallest buildings as its subject, offering fresh perspectives on the familiar towers of Downtown and Uptown. Two strategies dominate, from narrowing on repeated patterns of windows and awnings, as with a startling juxtaposition of the Chevron and Exxon buildings, or by casting whole buildings vertiginously against the sky. Both approaches rely, as with Ansel Adams’s landscapes, on a careful consideration of the role and quality of light and climate, and on the nearly tactile activity of the clouds. Often, vast reflective surfaces provide a sort of interpretive strategy, a rippling mirror of the surroundings, including other buildings and streetscapes. Several employ a fish-eye lens, including one dizzying shot dominated by one of the decorative stainless steel arches along Post Oak Boulevard.

Haymes’s photography has gained recent notice from KUHF, who lent their support to his show. One of his photographs can be seen as the cover of a “American Zeitgeist,” a CD of twentieth century works performed by the station’s Chamber Music Ensemble. Another may soon be featured on their revamped website.

For the show, Haymes was encouraged by gallery owner Lori Betz to print a few of the photographs on aluminum plates, amplifying their reflective qualities. Since the process is prohibitively expensive, Haymes took one step at a time, starting with his neck-craning vantage of the Heritage Plaza. When that seemed to work out, he printed several others. The most successful example of the process is a view of 1500 Louisiana (formerly Enron South), as seen through the circular skyway at Smith and Bell Streets, in which the gleaming steel and glass give shape and scale to a pellucid blue sky.

Haymes’s other photographic subjects, not surprisingly, are landscapes from near Austin and in Big Bend and New Mexico. Indeed, Tom sees in broad terms a correlation between his architectural photos and his landscapes. Haymes grew up in Houston and has “always been drawn to taking architectural photography. It’s not like we have mountains, and so this is our scenery.” “Skyscraper City” therefore necessarily limits its purview to exterior impressions, monumental buildings as seen from the street, or in a few examples, through windows high above the ground. This show reminds us once again to consider how we identify visually with a city like Houston where sightlines rarely can reach beyond a line trees, a freeway overpass, or a commercial strip. The towers of Houston, however, can be seen from great distances, our common visual vocabulary, however else they may function economically or geographically.

That said, Haymes’s works only rarely show a standard Houston cityscape, with its iconic skyline and ranked embodiments the energy sector. We are encouraged more often in this exhibit to pursue the surprising details that are divulged by these structures when they are viewed from oblique angles, uncommon vantages, according to an active and spirited imagination.

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