Raymond Bleesz is an American original, and by that, I mean something specific. “American originals,” whether they be musicians, politicians, writers, artists, or photographers, have something in common: they tend to be attached to places, patches of land (even though they may travel far and wide), and their work has a strong regional flavor. At the same time, no matter how local their interests, they always seem to seek qualities that are universal, that could be understood and appreciated by anyone — a city slicker from New York or Paris, say, or an immigrant recently arrived, or an astrophysicist with her newly minted Ph.D. from Berkeley. Is this universal mode of address all just an illusion of American optimism?
I think it’s worth consulting Raymond’s photographs for the answer. First of all, he has been looking at a large patch of land in Colorado and points west for a very long time. So he is sensitive to its physical moods and textures, its spaces, and its theatrical shifts of light. There’s plenty of visual interest in his landscapes, made even more dramatic by the contrast of his favored black and white. But unlike Ansel Adams’ west, Raymond’s is populated. People make their marks on it, build there, and travel through. Just when you might be inclined to take all this metaphysical panorama too seriously, however, the photographer will show you an outhouse, or a goofy road sign. So much for human hubris, ambition, and the taming of the west.
That sense of humor reveals what might be most important of all about this photographer, more important even that the extensive catalog of Colorado scenes he has imaged– a valuable visual history. It is a quality of sympathy. This is especially clear in his portraits. Very often what you see in photographic portraits is an artifact, usually of the photographer’s control and desire to make some kind of statement about his hapless (usually) victim. In Raymond’s portraits, something else is revealed. His portraits rarely seem forced even when they are formal because what he really captures is something that passes back and forth between himself and his subjects. I am not sure how to put that into words. Call it respect or affection or trust, it yields portraits that are distinct and particular as a signature but as common and familiar as a nearby relative. He accords them dignity, but he lets them breathe.
For many reasons, these are fraught times to call yourself American. Look at these pictures, and take it easy. It’ll pass. We’ll get together again, put aside the internet-stoked grievances, and recognize that we’re all together in the same leaky boat. We may even laugh at each other’s jokes. Raymond Bleesz absolutely guarantees it.
March 23, 2019 – These words, sentences were written by Lyle Rexer. Rexer is an author, teacher, photo critic, and curator. Bleesz has worked with Rexer as a mentor. Rexer is a faculty member of the school of visual arts, NYC.