Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of photography and other art exhibits

Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe

In this era of pyrotechnic digital imagery and ubiquitous arm-length photography, the current photography exhibit at the Denver Art Museum—Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe—may not, at first glance, seem especially exciting. However, the exhibit offers patrons willing to invest a little time and a bit of mental effort something more rewarding than mere visual stimulation.

Kenneth Josephson_2015_265

Kenneth Josephson, Polapans, 1973

Although not a household name, Kenneth Josephson was—in the 60’s and 70’s—at the forefront of what academics and photo historians refer to as conceptual photography. Schooled in the art of photography by the legendary Minor White, and heavily influenced by Modernist masters Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, Josephson’s most important work focused inward—on photography itself. For example, he conceived of a brilliant way (photographs within photographs) to prompt viewers to be as aware of the act of picture-taking as they are of what had been photographed. Before mouse-click digital replication, Josephson created images like Polapans, 1973. Before trendy arm-length selfies, he conjured images like New York State, 1970.

Kenneth Josephson, Stockholm 1967

Kenneth Josephson, Stockholm, 1967

But unlike a lot of conceptual photography, which tends to be somber, intentionally inartistic, and decodable only by academicians and historians, there is an air of whimsy and lightheartedness to Josephson’s work. His photographs can be enjoyed by anyone, for their visual interest alone, whether or not the deeper, conceptual aspect is wholly appreciated. So it is with photographs like the sublimely beautiful apparition of a tree in winter (Chicago, 1959), or the puzzle that is a car with an apparently reversed shadow (Stockholm, 1967).

Kenneth Josesphson-New-York-State

Kenneth Josephson, New York State, 1970

Encounters with the Universe provides evidence, at least to anyone not so inured to the charm of photography by over-saturation that he can no longer marvel at true creativity, that the greatest gifts that a visual artist has to offer are interesting ideas behind interesting images.
Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe is on view at the Denver Art Museum through May 8, 2016.

The Altered Landscape

The best visual art tends to possess these qualities: it engages the mind even as it captures the eye. Visual art missing both traits is a disaster; visual art missing one or the other quality motivates the viewer to move on, as either the eye gives up hope of stimulation, or the mind drifts away in search of a more interesting puzzle. Two distinct but conceptually related exhibits now showing at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery in Denver’s RiNo art district meet the criteria for the best in visual art. Imposition features the aerial landscape photography of Denver born and based Evan Anderman. Overlook, a pop-up exhibit in conjunction with the near-by Rule Gallery, features paintings and drawings of man-altered landscapes by Colorado born, now Santa Fe based, Nina Elder.

Imposition is the latest in Anderman’s growing oeuvre of aerial landscape art. This exhibit features ten large (most are 30×54”, the largest is 48×72”), visually stunning color aerial landscape photographs of the Eastern Plains of Colorado. The initial response to aerial landscapes is like that usually evoked by abstract art, as small telling details are at first overwhelmed by large scale shapes, colors, and textures. One piece in particular struck me as a play on the Color Field abstract art of the 50s and 60s. Fallow Fields is composed of strong geometrical shapes of neutral color capped by an almost implausibly iridescent green quadrilateral. The formalist in me thrilled when I looked upon this piece.

Evan Anderman, Fallow Fields, 2014

Evan Anderman, Fallow Fields, 2014

The formal beauty of each of Imposition’s images is the hook. One is inclined to gaze for a while from a leisurely distance to soak in the beauty, and only later move in to seek out the details. That’s when the questions arise, the inquiry begins, and a dialog ensues. Which shapes are natural, which made by man? What is that? How was it formed? Why is it there? Sometimes the image answers readily (e.g., tractor tracks, erosion, irrigation); sometimes it does not. In any case, the eye and mind are engaged.

The aerial landscape art on display here is the consequence of several significant developments that began in the last century. On the technical side were the developments of small, relatively affordable airplanes, and portable high resolution cameras and lenses. The subject of aerial photography, the land itself, underwent significant change, due to the emergence of monolithic agribusinesses that operate on geographic scales previously unimaginable, and the development of massively powerful machines that are capable of reshaping the contours and texture of the land to an extent not previously achievable by beast-drawn tools.  No less significant a development was the evolution of the intent of the landscape photographer. The 20th century started with the Pictorialist, who endeavored merely to imitate Impressionist paintings. They were followed by early Modernists, who sought to evoke an emotional response to the sublime splendor of seemingly untouched nature. Emerging in the mid-70s were the New Topographics artists who could see no point in portraying pristine nature, given the overwhelming evidence of man’s despoilment. They presented an unflinching and often pessimistic view of man’s impact. Their work marked a turning point in landscape photography. Now we have contemporary landscape artists—artists like Evan Anderman—who are neither afraid to show man’s alteration of the land, nor afraid to reveal the beauty that sometimes accompany such change.

Imposition doesn’t answer the question of whether man’s alteration of the plains is good or bad. This exhibit doesn’t go there. But it does make one see and think about our man-altered world. We get to draw our own conclusions, whatever they may be. If landscape photography of the early 20th century sought to show us our land as we’d like to believe it is and hope it always will be, contemporary landscape photography seeks to show us our land as it actually is and likely will continue to be—that is, much altered by man, for good or for bad.

Nina Elder, Jumbo (Trinity Test Site, April 7, 1945), 2012

Nina Elder, Jumbo (Trinity Test Site, April 7, 1945), 2012

Overlook, although also contemporary landscape art, is less neutral than Imposition. Elder’s work tends more towards the New Topographics formulation—especially that of photographer Robert Adams—where human-created ugliness is presented in jarring counterpoint to the beauty of the surrounding land. A case in point is Jumbo (Trinity Test Site, April 7, 1945), a large (22×30”) graphite and charcoal drawing.  A classic Southwestern desert landscape, complete with craggy mountains in the background, and a canopy of cirrus clouds overhead is the stage for huge earthmoving equipment, apparently employed in the preparation of the site for early nuclear weapons tests. While Elder claims in her artist statement that she approaches the post-industrial landscape as “pure spectacle”, the fact that she used radioactive (presumably low-level radioactive) charcoal in the Jumbo drawing, would indicate an intent to evoke a decidedly non-neutral reaction to this particular man-altered landscape.

Like the Imposition pieces, there is a lovely formal beauty to Overlook’s paintings and drawings. Overlook engages the eye and mind, even if the messages embedded in this work leave less room for personal interpretation than does Imposition. Imposition and Overlook make a stimulating pairing.

This dual exhibit at the Wiedenhoeft is unusual for a couple of reasons. Generally, Anderman exhibits his work at his own gallery, Journey Through Landscape. Nina Elder is a Rule artist, and the Wiedenhoeft and Rule galleries are rivals, if friendly rivals, in the emerging RiNo art scene. So I applaud all the parties involved for pulling together to create this wonderful show. The Denver art scene is the beneficiary of their collective efforts.

Imposition and Overlook are at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery through October 18th.

Seeing in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman

Seeing in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman, the current photography exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, once again demonstrates Curator of Photography Eric Paddock’s willingness to show lesser known photographers, so long as their work manifests the essence of the art: elements of formal beauty coupled with a narrative that relates to some universal human emotion or concern. Forsman, an artist better known for his landscape paintings, clearly has the right stuff.

Chuck Forsman, Home Stretch, Central Wyoming

Chuck Forsman, Home Stretch, Central Wyoming

The exhibit is fairly large (over 50 prints), and is presented in two distinct, but related, sets of work—Western Rider, photographs taken through the car window while Forsman drives the highways and byways of the West, and  Walking Magpie, photographs taken while Forsman walks his dog Magpie around Boulder and in the hills and dales of the West. The linkage between the two sets of work is precisely Forsman talent in capturing something special in otherwise common fleeting scenes to which most of us would not give a second thought. This is not an exhibition of a deeply conceptual body of work. However, by freezing these uncomplicated, commonplace scenes, Forsman asks us to reconsider what we are missing as we rush through life, most often completely unaware of the special little moments occurring all around us.

Chuck Forsman, Double Take, Central Utah.1994-98

Chuck Forsman, Double Take, Central Utah,1994-98

Most of the Western Rider images are bordered by the frame of the car; often the rear view or side view mirrors intrude into the picture plane.  This creates a setting that we are all familiar with. We understand the context. Ever been on the open road, with no one else around, seemingly forever? Recall that feeling? That is Home Stretch in a nutshell.  Ever spotted a side road off to somewhere unknown, and wondered where it goes, what would happen if you … ? That is the feeling evoked by Double Take. And so it goes with most of the thirty-odd Western Rider images.

From a formal perspective, Forsman often uses the car body or other elements of the car as framing elements, or as counterweights, or to establish the familiar context of the car cockpit. In Home Stretch, a portion of the rearview mirror intrudes in the upper right quadrant of the image and breaks up the otherwise dulling symmetry of the scene. In Double Take, the car’s frame and a windshield wiper form a visual notch to focus our eyes on the driver’s decision ahead: continue on the main road to the planned destination, or take the side road to unknown adventure. The fact that Forsman understands composition so well can be attributed to his painter’s background. The fact that he is able to compose the photographs so well despite the dynamic context in which they are captured (many of the photographs clearly are taken while Forsman is barreling down the highway) speaks to skills usually attributed to war, street, or sports photographers.

Not all of the Western Rider images are special— not surprising for an exhibit with so many images. Caffeine Medley, a subset of Rider, consists of nine similar images arranged on a small exhibit wall.  Each photograph was taken at night, while Forsman apparently is moving at highway speeds. The result is that each photograph is a variation on the theme of stretched and wiggly lines and lights. Caffeine Medley does evoke the sense of the classic, coffee-powered ‘all-nighter on the open road’, but the repetition of similar imagery was overkill. One or two of the better images would have made the point. Moreover, some of the Medley photographs are sloppily matted, and the mounting of so many photographs in a tight space resulted in poor lighting on some of them. Overall though, the Western Rider images evoke a sense of shared experience, a feeling of “You know, I’ve seen something like that”; and “I’ve felt that way on long road trips too.” Riding shotgun on Western Rider is an enjoyable journey.

Chuck Forsman, Near Tooele, Utah, 2000

Chuck Forsman, Near Tooele, Utah, 2000

The real treat of this exhibit, however, are the twenty or so Walking Magpie images. I was thoroughly charmed by the images of Magpie, wandering around her world, a study—to paraphrase Paddock’s wall text—in the acceptance of her world as it is, and the insatiable desire to explore it. Do you remember the first time you came upon a really big bug? If you don’t, then spend a little time with Near Tooele, Utah.  Don’t recall the fun of rolling around on a grassy slope? Near Denver, Colorado will cure that. At the risk of overstating this, Magpie represents the lost freedom of childhood.

Chuck Forsman, Near Denver, Colorado, 2003

Chuck Forsman, Near Denver, Colorado, 2003

Again, Seeing in Passing is not an exhibit where you have to strain to dig out the deep, conceptual meaning of the work. Instead, it readily offers its meaning in its easily recognizable, gentle reminders of little moments of our lives that sometimes pass us by without notice. Those reminders make Seeing in Passing worth seeing.

Seeing in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman is on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum through May 25, 2014.

Dimensions in Texture: Photographs by Robert Schenkein

Dawns_Early_Light, Robert Schenkein 2000

Dawn’s Early Light, Robert Schenkein, 2000

Having recently posted an essay on art photography’s trend away from the dominance of photons to the dominance of pixels (see my essay Of Comets and Pixels ) I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see an exhibit so thoroughly given over to pixelography as was Dimensions in Texture.  But I was.

The exhibit’s venue, Evan Anderman’s Journey Through Landscape gallery, generally features artists who, like Anderman himself, specialize in nature and travel photography. As a lot, N&T artists generally use Photoshop merely to touch up their photon-based images; they don’t usually use Photoshop to add pixels that co-star in the final image.  For most of his multi-decade art career, Robert Schenkein has been an N&T photographer who has relied primarily on the skillful capture of photons by a light sensitive medium to create his art. So, yes, I was a bit surprised by Dimensions in Texture. Still, virtually no fine art photographer completely ignores digital technology these days, and ‘straight photography’ is now more a measure of the degree—rather than the religious abstention—of pixel mashing. In any case, my quibble with pixelography is not the art; it’s that the art is called ‘photography’. Regardless of the label I’d prefer to see attached to it, I think the art in this exhibit is lovely.

Dimensions in Texture consists of sixteen color inkjet prints, each approximately 16 inches on the long dimension and 12 inches on the short, framed in simple complimentary white frames.  The tie that binds these prints is not so much the subject matter; the subjects fall in either the nature or travel category.  Rather the common denominator, for all prints except one, is that the images have been ‘texturized’ by the digital blending-in of textured backgrounds. But the mere blending-in of textured backgrounds is not what makes this art so visually arresting. Like the Pictorialists of an earlier age of photography, Schenkein shows a fine gift for knowing which of his original photographs will work in this blended context. This is usually an image with an isolated subject as, generally, a busy scene relies on sharp detail to carry the image’s interest, and texturing tends to soften the details. Also like the Pictorialists of old, Schenkein displays a painter’s touch for image and color alterations that enhance the ethereal feeling that textured images can evoke. Of course, unlike the Pictorialists, who realized their art through physical manipulation of the negative and the colored gum bichromate print, Schenkein achieves his art by masterful Photoshop layering and color alteration.

Halong Bay Junk, Robert Schenkein, 2004

Halong Bay Junk, Robert Schenkein, 2004

The successful images in this exhibit—and most of them are—combine the ethereal effect of texturing with a scene that suggests a timeless narrative. The few images that didn’t have both elements working together can evoke bit of cognitive dissonance. For example, Halong Bay Junk, an otherwise otherworldly image of a Chinese junk afloat in waters surrounded by ancient limestone pillars, loses a bit of its charm because the junk is actually a tour boat, and its English name, Valentine, is clearly visible on its main sail.  The timelessness of the image is lost in non-translation. Another image, Venice Clotheslines, is less successful because it was not textured like the other images in the exhibit. It is merely a photo (albeit of a visually interesting scene) of clothes hanging on a line to which the Photoshop watercolor filter has been applied. Hence the image does not achieve the sensual painterly look of the other fifteen images in the exhibit. Clotheslines is … dare I say it … hung out to dry, by itself. Since it really doesn’t fit in with the rest, the exhibit would be a bit more cohesive had Anderman and Schenkein not included it.

However, the less successful images are few; the majority of the images are a visual treat. I was particularly taken by Dawn’s Early Light. To capture the original photo on which the image is based Schenkein waited patiently in a pre-dawn fog bank for the sun to rise. When the sun rose across the water and the fog lifted a bit his patience was rewarded with a magical and timeless scene, a heron standing by the water’s edge. Schenkein’s deft touch with composition, texture blending, as well as with yellow, magenta, and cyan color alterations, results in a truly stunning image.

Call it pixelography, call it modern-day Pictorialism, or call it fine art photography. However it is labeled, Dimensions in Texture is very much worth seeing. Dimensions in Texture is at the Journey Through Landscape gallery through August 24, 2013.

Manipulated

Untitled #32, from the series Hardly More Than Ever, Laura Letinsky, 2001

To a certain extent, all fine art photographers follow Minor White’s dictum to capture the subjects of their work “not only for what they are, but what else they are.” Indeed, if the difference between a fine art photograph and a pure documentary photograph could be boiled down to just one thing, that one thing might be that the fine art photograph, unlike its pure documentary brethren, asks us, the viewers, to ‘see’—in our mind and with our emotions—something besides the obvious in its image. In an important way, the measure of a fine art photograph is the extent to which the image moves us to consider, if not feel, the ‘what else’.

To a certain extent, all fine art photographers manipulate ‘reality’ in order to create an image that conveys more than the obvious. Even the disciples of ‘straight’ photography manipulate reality, if only by choice of film, framing, perspective, filters, aperture, shutter speed, development, paper, cropping, dodging, burning, etc., etc., etc. In an important way, manipulation of reality is the means by which the fine art photographer creates the ‘what else’.

 

 

Two exhibits, one at the Denver Art Museum, and one at the nearby by Byers-Evans House Museum, offer the works of two fine art photographers who employ very different modes of manipulation, and in my view, evoke two very different reactions. Both exhibits moved me, one in a manner likely anticipated by the artist, the other, likely not.

At the DAM (through March 24, 2013) in the Photography Gallery is Laura Letinsky – Still Life Photographs 1997-2012. At Byers-Evans (through February 23, 2013) is Out West – Recent works of Loretta Young-Gautier.

Laura Letinsky is an artist best known for her still life photography. Her compositions are spare, generally featuring an arrangement of a relatively few odds bits—a plate, a spoon, some half-eaten fruit. Her work is in color, but her use of color is spare as well; she generally limits her color palette to fine variations of white and a few pastels. Viewing Letinsky’s work inevitably evokes melancholy feelings. There is something sad about the lonely odds and ends, the bits of leftover food, the items left behind when the party has moved off to another stage. Letinsky is asking us to consider something about how we live, how we consume, perhaps how we waste. While some may wish she did not pose such questions, it is hard not to be moved to the sadness by her images. Even those who refuse to consider the questions her work poses still must admire the craft she employs in asking, because above all else Letinsky employs beauty to hook us. And only when so captured will we consider ‘what else’ is there to be seen, what else do we feel.

Pegasus, Loretta Young-Gautier, 2000

Where Letinsky tries to manipulate viewers’ reaction to her images by the arrangements she creates and the color and lighting she controls, Denver-area artist Loretta Young-Gautier manipulations are of a different order. In Out West, Young-Gautier sometimes combines as many as ten different negatives to create a single, typically stunning, image. Her craftsmanship is impeccable, the combinations are seamless. Out West is meant to stir fond cultural memories of the old west, and therein lays the problem I have with this exhibit. The images are beautiful. So why is my reaction to this exhibit negative?

It is because Young-Gautier is portraying a west that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever existed at all. If her images evoke warm feelings it is not so much due to cultural memories of how the west actually was, but rather due to we Americans having been culturally programmed to think that is the way the west was, and indeed still may be (think Marlboro ads and truck commercials). Such warm feelings are just false emotion. Young-Gautier might as well employ her magic to concoct a faux Ansel Adams landscape. The real western landscape is not Ansel Adams, it’s Robert Adams. And the real scenes ‘out west’ are nothing like the heroic scenes portrayed by Young-Gautier. So while I admire the craft and beauty of the Out West images, I could not help but reject the feelings they were meant to stir.

Street View

Street Photography is Alive, Well and Evolving

Street Art Love, Stacy Keck

One of the earliest known photographs, View of Boulevard du Temple (Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, 1839), not only introduced photography to the world, it also was a precursor to one of photography’s first genres: street photography. Although interest in street photography has waxed and waned in the almost two centuries since View was taken, the latest exhibit at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), Street View, which presents the work of thirty nine current artists, demonstrates that the genre is alive and well.

More than this, Street View also reveals that current street photography—while maintaining touch with its roots in the works of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Frank, Winogrand and the other demigods of the genre—continues to evolve; just as the technology of photography itself has evolved from daguerreotypes to today’s digital wizardry. For anyone interested in fine art photography, and certainly anyone passionate about street photography, Street View is a must-see exhibit.

One aspect of the evolution in street photography can be seen in the typology of Street View’s artwork. The exhibit consists of forty three prints and one digital video. The video, recorded by a smartphone, is probably a sign of things to come (or already here) in fine art ‘photography’. Analog photography, hanging on seemingly by a thread, is represented by only eight prints, although three of these are color C-prints, which itself represents a step away from the classic B&W street photography of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Among the digital prints grayscale fares less prominently than it does among the analog prints, as 24 of the 35 digital prints feature color.

However as interesting as this typological view of the evolution of street photography may be, the more interesting aspect is how the aesthetics of the exhibit’s artwork relates to the aesthetics of classical street photography.

Are You Ready To Tangueray, Virginia Pringle

Perhaps with a nod to Walker Evans and Robert Frank, whose imagery featured the ‘signs’ of the times, Virginia Pringle asks Are You Ready to Tangueray, Bruce Zander finds Man on the Street,  and Paul Sisson reads the signs of decline in Rock River Wyoming. If Evans or Frank ‘did color’ it might have come out like Derrick Burbul’s Sign to Nowhere.

Henri Cartier-Bresson famously triggered his Leica’s shutter at the precise instant when all of the unsuspecting actors in a concisely framed scene were momentarily held in a balanced composition of juxtaposed elements and human expression, thus capturing poignancy and raising a slice of otherwise unremarkable street life to high art. Cartier-Bresson would recognize the ‘decisive moment’ in Jim Lustenader’s Lust, in Patricia Sweeney’s City Kids, and in Stacy Keck’s Street Art Love.

Lust, Jim Lustenader

Certainly Garry Winogrand, he of the skewed horizon and soft spot for the fair sex, would appreciate Leo Mendonca’s Oblivious (NY 003), and Chip Rutan’s The Titans. Winogrand rarely shot color, and likely never applied a Photoshop watercolor filter, but if he had he might have come up with something like Lowell Baumunk’s Supergirl is Summoned to Save the World.

Supergirl is Summoned to Save the World Again, Lowell Baumunk

Actually, Baumunk’s Supergirl image is just another example of the evolution of the genre. Street photography and color is one thing, but street photography and Photoshop watercolor filter?  Once the genre crossed the digital divide there is no stopping the changes we’ll see. Need more evidence? Street View presents Rhona Eve Clews’ Where Every Light is the Moon, a smartphone video clip, with ambient sound track, of a ride on a double-decker through the streets of London. Yup, this is street photography today.

Brush, Lincoln Nebraska, Mike Whitley

But color and technology aren’t the only aspects of the evolution, at least in the eyes of the exhibit’s juror, Anne Kelly, Associate Director of photo-eye Gallery, Santa Fe. Kelly opted to stretch the boundaries of street photography to the point where it overlaps with other genres. For example, Kelly included images like Carrie Tomerlin’s Encroachment, Kendall Davis’ Dancing in the Street and Cell Phone, and Mike Whitley’s Brush, Lincoln Nebraska and Reindeer, Longmont Colorado. These images, due to their either decidedly environmental or decidedly suburban chords, struck me as far more related to Robert Adam’s work than to gritty street photography. Nonetheless, these seeming outliers are lovely images, so while their inclusion in Street View puzzled me, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the exhibit.

Rare is the exhibit where every one of its works of art is worth at least a few minutes of time. Street View is one of those exhibits. Street View is at CPAC through December 15, 2012.

Hidden World

In Atmosphere, photographer Evan Anderman’s previous exhibit at his Journey Through Landscape gallery, he recalled the sinuous cloud images of early 20th century master Alfred Stieglitz’ and his famous ‘Equivalents’ series. In Anderman’s new work, Hidden World (also at the JTL), an artist best known for his exploration of large spaces (especially the western landscape) investigates a hidden world of small spaces—the humble leaf. By turning his artistic gaze on the leaf Anderman now recalls the work of other early masters of photography, especially William Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins, and Imogen Cunningham, who also found in the simple leaf a subject as visually and emotionally compelling as a sweeping landscape or gothic cathedral.

Untitled (from Hidden World series), Evan Anderman, 2012

Hidden World exhibits a score of prints; each print images a single leaf.  However each leaf is rendered in razor sharp large scale that reveals remarkable fractal detail. Anderman chose front lighting on some leaves so as to reveal fine texturing of petiole and margin. Backlighting on other leaves reveals the marvelous fractal patterns along the veins of the leaf blade. Whether reflecting or transmitting light, the colors of these leaves are rich, vibrant and dramatic.  It is precisely because front lighting and backlighting reveal a leaf in dramatically different ways that the most interesting photographs in the exhibit are paired: three different leaves, each imaged twice, once in backlighting and once in front lighting.

Finally, what is perfect about Anderman’s leaves is that they are imperfect. They are weathered; some have spots and worm holes. It is precisely these imperfections that mark them of the real, if somewhat hidden, world. Just as poetry must do if it is to succeed, art photography too must make some connection to the real world else there will be no long lasting emotive connection with its patrons. With this exhibit it is clear that Anderman used his art not so much to reveal a hidden world as to reveal hidden visual poems.

The photographer sees the world in a different way. He sees  the object  before him as it might be distilled to its essence when, by his artistic choices and the lens of his camera, it is isolated by frame, flattened onto a plane, revealed by the shades and tints of color reflected off its surface, and featured or understated by perspective.  Still, even the most experienced photographer is often surprised by how his photograph has rendered a subject; indeed that element of surprise is one of the real joys of photography. The social documentary photographer Garry Winogrand once observed “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. I photograph to see what something will look like photographed.“   With Hidden World, Evan Anderman has carried out the photographer’s task to perfection; he has clearly described the leaf for us. We are left only to enjoy its poetry and wonder at its mysteries.

Hidden World is currently on view (through October 13, 2012) at the Journey Through Landscape gallery in Denver.

Eye Want More

All too often fine art photography galleries offer too little beauty and too much ‘concept’. Call me old fashioned, but I want, my artist’s eyes want, to appreciate more than just the exhibit’s concept.

Case in point: the exhibit currently showing at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC). Tracing Absence features the current and ongoing works of emerging artists Laura Shill and Adam Milner.

Performing-The-Other, Laura Shill, 2012

Laura Shill’s work is drawn from her MFA thesis and takes as its point of departure the ghostly ‘hidden mother’ images in century-old tintype photographs of babies. Shill’s installation, as CPAC notes in their announcement, “re-envisions the historic photographer’s studio as a feminine, bodily space.” Her installation, set in an fanciful version of the tintype photographer’s tent, consists of three sets of fifteen images: fifteen tiny matted antique tintypes of babies, fifteen un-matted enlargements of those antique tintypes that reveal the creepy images of draped ‘hidden mothers’ who are holding their squirming babies, and fifteen untitled color prints from Shill’s series Performing the Other. These latter images are ‘portraits’ of strangely costumed individuals, often surrounded by equally strange, organic-motif props; none of the ‘portraits’ reveal the subject’s complete face.

Adam Milner’s installation consists of three distinct but related works: Empty Rooms, Discreet, and Torsos. Milner’s art is inspired by his engaging, as he puts it in his Artist Statement, “in meeting strangers via the internet.” The images in his works are basically photo-stills from some of the video chat sessions with these strangers. Empty Rooms consists of six images of …well… empty rooms—the backdrop and setting of an absent chat partner. Discreet consists of six portraits of male chat partners with their face fully or partially obscured. Torsos consists of 372 iPhone-sized images—arranged in a 12×31 grid—of the bare torsos of other male chat partners.

Untitled, from the series Discreet, Adam Milner, 2012

For CPAC curator Marlow Hoffman, the tie that binds these two very different and highly conceptual bodies of work is the artists’ creation of ‘faceless portraits’.  In her curator statement, Hoffman notes that these faceless portraits are connected in that the images simultaneously “reveal and conceal” their subjects, and that the portraits are the “catalyst for the artist’s exploration of identity, gender, conformity and the performance of self.”

Hoffman’s explanation for connecting and exhibiting Shill and Milner’s work in Tracing Absence is all well and good, as far as it goes. Tracing may be an exhibition of art, but for me, something is severely lacking here.

In Tracing, Hoffman, as too many photo curators do these days, has organized something I call a ‘concept-only’ art exhibition. A concept-only art exhibition generally has these characteristics: the viewer must discern the ‘concept’ motivating the photographer if the art is to be appreciated at all; discerning the concept is often difficult to impossible without the crutch of the Artist’s or Curator’s Statement; the exhibition is not a sampling of the photographer’s art but rather the exhibition is the art because the concept is only discernible in the large and not by analysis of individual images.

Most troubling to me is the key characteristic of such exhibitions: to appreciate the art requires the use of eyes, but the art does not intrigue the eyes. Sadly, Tracing is not a feast for the eyes. Not one of Shill’s or Milner’s images caused me to stop and linger. I looked at each image, noted and appreciated its contribution to the overall concept of the exhibition, and quickly moved on.

Taking in the whole, I can agree with Hoffman that the Tracing’s forest of images is art, even if I wonder whether I could say that about its trees. I applaud Hoffman for promoting emerging Colorado photographers, and I encourage patronage of this exhibit if for no other reason than to support her in this effort.

Nevertheless, I left the gallery with my eyes unsatisfied and under-nourished. To my eyes Tracing‘s photographs offer little of beauty, either in form, content or craftsmanship. Tracing offers for appreciation only a ‘concept’, and for me that just isn’t enough. I, and my eyes, want more.

Tracing Absence is showing at CPAC through September 8, 2012.

Edward Weston: Life Work

Pepper No. 30, Edward Weston, 1930

Pepper No. 30, Edward Weston, 1930

Every once in a while something unexpectedly wonderful happens, and just such a thing has happened to photographic art enthusiasts living along the Front Range. Through 22 July, 2012, the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center is presenting Edward Weston: Life Work.  The artwork is drawn from the collection of New York collectors Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. Anyone ‘into’ art photography at all knows that Weston is considered by most art historians to be one of the demigods of 20th century photography. But the good news gets even better. When the Longmont exhibition first came to my attention I had assumed that the museum would mount a dozen or maybe a couple of dozen prints. The wonderful surprise is that this is a major exhibition consisting of over 125 original black and white prints.

The exhibition follows the life and artistic transformation of Weston. You see the struggling commercial portrait photographer morph into the bohemian photography artist. You see, in his portraits, still life, and landscapes, his turning away from the fuzzy, romanticized Pictorialist style that dominated American art photography in the decades that straddle the start of the 20th century. You see his art and focus influenced by his association with the art colonies of Los Angeles, New York, Mexico, and finally Carmel. You see, in his favorite nude models, his various lovers over the decades of his working career. You see him gain full stride, becoming one of the founding fathers of American Modernist photography, creating images that would help define and refine that era.

For all the changes in his life and art, the exhibit’s photographs show important constancy as well. Early on, Weston gained the ability to pre-visualize how colors, lights and shadows reflecting from the scene before his camera could be rendered into a luminous range of black and white. Early on, he mastered the skills necessary to capture those tones onto film and then onto print. But by far the most important constant in his art life, and the most important reason that he is so revered by art photographers everywhere, was his genius in seeing in the most ordinary items—even a bed pan for heaven’s sake—the possibility of a connection with the human psyche. His artistic brilliance then is not just the ability to render his subjects in spectacular gradations of black and white, but his ability to portray those subjects in such a way as to force the viewer to look upon the prints not only with his eyes but with his mind’s eyes as well.

Weston astonishes us with peppers that mimic the human form, beguiles us with nudes whose sexual energy is tempered by the beauty of shape and tonal range, charms us with portraits that that reveal the person as well as capture his reflection, and connects us at a deeper level with nature with landscapes that that expose beautiful patterns and sublime gradations of black and white that usually are concealed by the tyranny of color.  As a consequence his photography is far more than eye-pleasing documentation of the objects before his camera. Rather, his art speak of our relationships to the world around us and of our relationships to each other. As a note on one of the exhibit wall states: “Where others saw nothing of note, Edward Weston caught the rhythms, patterns, and interconnections between nature and human experience. Whether exploring still life, the human face, the landscape or the nude, his goal was never a literal recording.”

This is a marvelous exhibition, more wonderful for the unexpected breadth and the depth of its coverage of Weston’s career. Since such an exhibition will likely not be presented in Colorado for quite some time I can’t image that anyone in the I-25 corridor from Wyoming to New Mexico who cares about photography as an art form would fail to take this opportunity to view firsthand this significant and extensive presentation of Weston’s most important work.

Atmosphere

In his essay Making Art New, Robert Adams considers the difficult and awkward topic of ‘newness’ in photography. Can there be anything new in photography when its genres have been covered so well by so many of its masters? Is this why, as Adams sadly notes, “a great deal of energy is being invested in attempts to push photographers into unusual areas”? And how should we react when photographers seemingly opt instead to re-plow old fields?

I pondered these questions as I attended the opening of Atmosphere, an exhibition of photographic work by Evan Anderman and Susan Blake currently on view (through May 26, 2012) at the Journey Through Landscape gallery in Denver.  This is not a large exhibit, consisting as it does of only thirteen photographs. But the JTL is an intimate setting and the prints, each 20×30 inches and beautifully mounted on aluminum, fill the space nicely. The exhibit consists of seven of Blake’s color pigment prints and six of Anderman’s B&W carbon pigment prints.

The title, Atmosphere, is a hint that images of clouds are the common thread throughout the exhibit. However, each artist has a different take on the theme and—to my reckoning at least—their respective work relates to different genres. Anderman and Blake seemingly channel different past masters of photography.  Thus, in the presence of the spirits of masters past, I could not help but muse about whether there was ‘newness’ here or not.

Cloud Study #56, Evan Anderman, 2012

Anderman’s photographs are of clouds and nothing else. Anderman’s clouds are fluffy or wispy; they are not the threatening variety. There is no sense of impending violence in the ‘atmosphere’ of these images, only a sense of daydreaming and of seeing rabbits in the sky. Such images stimulate contemplation, childhood memories and reflection. In Anderman’s Cloud Study #56, bubbling altocumulus clouds in the upper left triangle of the image give way to wind-stretched cirrus clouds that sweep down at an angle through the middle of the image only to give way themselves to horizontal cumulus clouds that fill the lower right triangle of the image. My mind’s eye saw not clouds but rather a lovely, ethereal ‘waterfall in the sky’.  As beautiful as these photographs are to my eye, they are even more beautiful to my inner eye.

But Anderman’s Atmosphere also inevitably begs comparison to Equivalents, Alfred Stieglitz’ iconic series of cloud images, images meant to express Stieglitz’ innermost feelings. Is Anderman intentionally channeling Stieglitz and using images of clouds to express his (Anderman’s) innermost feelings? Or is he attempting something different?

Susan Blake’s cloud photographs are very different than Anderman’s. Of course Blake’s images are in color and Anderman’s in grayscale. But more to the point, Blake’s images are better described as ‘cloud-dominant’ rather than ‘cloud-only’ because, unlike Anderman’s photographs, Blake’s images include some landscape and some reference to man’s presence on Earth. Despite an attempt to mask ‘place’ by titling her images with made-up location names, the inclusion of landscape, however nominal, nonetheless give her images a place-stamp and a time-stamp. This too is in contrast to Anderman’s images which are placeless and therefore timeless. Further, Blake’s images are created using photo-merge techniques whereas Anderman’s photographs seemingly are ‘straight’. Blake added the clouds to a bit of landscape (or was it the other way around?). Regardless, Blake’s images are stunning. Captured in either early morning or late evening light, her clouds are exquisite in their tints and tones of magenta. Dominating over man’s comparatively feeble creations below, her clouds are magnificent in their mass.

Cherry Creek Lake, Susan Blake, 2012

In four of Blake’s images, man’s presence in the scene plays the role of the foil to the dominating clouds. In these images only the peak or chimney of a house intrudes in the lowermost portion of the scene. If more of man’s presence is included, as in her Cherry Lake Village, the overall sense is pastoral, the massive and dominating clouds offering shelter over a peaceful suburban village. If these four photographs were the entirety of Blake’s contribution to the exhibit then, despite the technical differences described earlier, her images would be emotionally more akin to those of Anderman’s than not. But the inclusion of three other Blake images, Sky Pointe Estates, Eagle Bluff Commons, and Ranchdale Crossing, throws this notion into doubt.

Eagle Bluff Commons, Susan Blake 2012

In these three images it was impossible not to sense the influence of Robert Adams and his New West landscapes.  For in them Blake seems to be trying—as did Adams—to find beauty even as man irreparably disfigures the land. In Eagle Bluff Commons, for example, although massive clouds dominate the photograph’s image space, it is the lower third of the image—a human-scape—that dominates the photograph’s emotional space. In the far background, on the horizon, is a city (Denver?) with a vapor plume from some refinery or smokestack rising like a mini A-bomb mushroom next to buildings tall enough to scrape the bottom of the clouds. In the foreground is a classic Adams’ scene: a new housing complex in development and huge earth movers carving up the land in preparation for even more apartments.  The duality present in these three images—beauty and irony—is inescapable. Was this duality present in the four other Blake photographs but just not as apparent? Is Blake’s Atmosphere merely a new New West?

In the end, however, it didn’t matter to me whether Atmosphere is ‘new’ or whether Anderman and Blake, in their own fashion, were refreshing the works of previous masters. I found their Atmosphere to be beautiful and thought provoking regardless. What more, then, could I ask of these two artists and their art?

As Adams concluded in Making Art New, “We welcome contemporary art, then, for its power to please the eye, to record the texture of current experience, and to invest that experience with meaning.” With regards to Atmosphere, I couldn’t agree more.