[Originally published in The Dallas Morning News]
Elliott McDowell graduated with a BBA from SMU in 1970 and later studied with renowned photographer Laura Gilpin. This is definitely a case of a local boy doing well. His early black-and-white work has a haunting brilliance that gives us sleek portrayals of American culture and its baubles.
Fleetwood, New Mexico depicts a curving automotive part that exhibits the allure of a showgirl’s thigh. It’s smooth and bulging and capped off by metonymic fenders that exemplify the American fondness for excess. Two chrome-clad fins stand in stark contrast to a Southwestern landscape. Mountains, scrubby bushes and gravel devolve into the mere messy stuff of creation when paired with plump whitewall tires and the magnificence of automotive gleam.
Moonrise Over Rolls Royce is yet another alluring cultural ride. It’s a send-up of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise photograph and reveals cacti and desert in the headlights of the supreme luxury car. The iconic winged ornament and geometrically splendid hood are bathed in lunar sheen, and we’re made to choose between two heavenly bodies — that of the “Roller” and the satellite that flashes every evening in the night sky.
When McDowell isn’t making cars resemble massive chunks of jewelry, he gives us nature — with a twist. His later works are brightly colored and play with images of oceans, trees and flora. The Calm Above the Storm depicts gray, turbulent seas and a hovering rose that’s positioned to make us assume it has supplanted the sun. One might determine it’s supposed to insinuate a rosy glow. Instead, it exerts an eerie quality that never captures us the way his earlier images do. I, for one, will readily admit that I’m a less willing captive near this gray ocean than imbibing the plush interior of the swankiest of automobiles.