Photographer Interviews

Joy Drury Cox and Ben Alper Explore the Odd World of Cave Tourism

August 29, 2018

By Jon Feinstein

“Compound Fractures,” Joy Drury Cox and Ben Alper’s collaborative series of photographs of caves in the Southeastern United States, consider how humans use natural wonders as tourist attractions. Using direct flash to blast stalactites, stalagmites and cave walls with light, Cox and Alper’s images recall crime scene photos. They chose a consistent visual structure: tall, vertical frames that offer a skewed, disorienting view into the cave spaces. Hands and wires jut into the frames, and instead of grounding our visual experience, they create further disorientation.

The images and edit are also informed by Alper’s longtime personal experience suffering from claustrophobia. “The photographic process seemed to abate some of the anxiety that often accompanies [claustrophobia],” Alper says. “You often hear photographers working in conflict zones say that when they’re behind the camera there’s a kind of distancing that occurs, one that allows them to make the photographs they need to. This was kind of like that at times but with very different stakes and no danger.”

Cox and Alper began the series in early 2016, a few days after their wedding. As an informal honeymoon, they began visiting Tennessee tourist caves, descending into their cool depths to escape the unbearable June heat. They snapped pictures like most tourists, but with an eye for the strange and unfamiliar. While their initial photos were casual, after a few trips the photographers realized they had the makings of a project, and they spent the next two years working on this collaborative series, posing as tourists while making formally constructed photographs that address the caves’ physical and conceptual significance.

As “Compound Fractures” began to take shape as a serious body of work, Cox and Alper first focused on the caves as places for eco-tourism and commercial gain. They were drawn to electrical outlets, wires, lights and walkways built in the spaces, which are marketed as natural wonders. To Cox and Alper, these details seemed odd and out of place for an industry claiming to present a pure and authentic experience of nature. “We were fascinated by the crudeness of the interventions and the strangeness of the juxtapositions,” Alper told PDN via email. Cox adds, “We were interested in this type of place where the human relationship to nature was more accessible, complicated, and at times more problematic.” As they continued photographing, they started to consider how photography can exaggerate the peculiarity of an environment, and how spatial relationships can create a surreal ambiguity of scale.

© Joy Drury Cox and Ben Alper, Untitled, from “Compound Fractures,” 2018

From Joy Drury Cox and Ben Alper’s series “Compound Fractures,” which they created in caves in the Southeastern U.S. that are marketed as tourist attractions.

In one photo, for example, two wires snake down from a crack in the cave at the top of the frame, curving before exiting in the middle-right side of the photograph. While we might make assumptions about their purpose—likely to help light the path for tourists—Cox and Alper’s lens renders the wires limp and powerless. The starkness of the camera’s flash and the nearly infinite depth of field flattens the image, making the wires seem embedded in the cave walls. As viewers, we’re left confused as to where anything begins or ends, and whether the wires even work.

The sequencing of “Compound Fractures” is a progression of descent. Moving further into the work—and ultimately the caves themselves—the pictures get more claustrophobic, abstract and destabilizing. Looking through the series, it becomes harder for the viewer to understand the dimensions and scale of the spaces, and abstraction and disorientation overwhelm the experience of the images. Even when the inclusion of human presence—for example, a child’s arm pointing a flashlight at a cavernous wall—provides some semblance of grounding, it’s thrown off by the photographers’ compression of the space with the hard flash. Differentiating between “artificial” and “pure” also becomes increasingly difficult as the sequence progresses.

While Cox and Alper each used their own cameras, and took their own photographs, they share authorship of the images in “Compound Fractures.” They have different backgrounds and interests: Alper is influenced by large-format photographic traditions as well as snapshot photography, and Cox focuses on conceptual drawing and installation. Yet the pair made a consistent effort to fuse their esthetic, articulating a collective vision, a singular gaze. In each picture, regardless of who shot it, dimensions flatten, light consistently falls off from the flash, and the color palette and the raw quality of the pictures are constant.

Cox likens this collaborative process to those of photographer duos Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. “There are strong formal precedents for me in terms of thinking about decentralized authorship,” says Cox. “There are so many choices that go into making a photograph beyond just clicking the shutter—it doesn’t matter [who took the picture] as long as the image or series carry and confound the viewer.” For Cox and Alper, the ambiguity of not knowing who made each specific photo also plays up the mystery of the spaces.

Beyond documenting the peculiar impact of human intervention in caves or referencing Alpers’s ongoing sense of claustrophobia, these photographs intentionally leave viewers hanging and uncertain. The conflation of space, natural phenomena and the oddities of tourism in the photographs is meant to confuse. “The cave is an impressive geological site and a metaphor for the mind,” says Alper. “It’s a place where things evolve and shift over time, where the conscious meets the unknown. Ultimately, these photographs are an attempt to find a formal language that represents both the physicality of these subterranean landscapes and the interiority of human cognition.”

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