Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Active Light: Photographic Experiments in Lighting and Chemistry at the Woodbury Museum of Art

Photography liberated painting says the traditional narrative of art history. Freed by the advent of photography from the burden of faithful reproduction, artists of the nineteenth century began experimenting with their mediums, stretching their descriptive possibilities while exploring new manners of seeing and understanding the world. Something similar seems to be happening to photography.

Now that digital cameras and post-production software have made it possible for just about anyone to take a great photograph, and economical enough to take photographs of just about everything, the chemical aspect of the technology is attracting new adherants and propelling a flurry of creative experimentation. Photographers are returning to chemical processes not simply because the images look better — the way music afficionados prefer vinyl over digital; they are also returning to chemicals for their experimental possibilities. Whether achieved through accident or systematic trial and error, chemical photography can create astonishingly fresh ways to see and understand the world.

Take Matthew Allred, the Utah photographer showing this month at Finch Lane Gallery. Allred leaves his pinhole cameras out for weeks and even months at a time, allowing the sensitive materials to interact with the available light as days and even seasons pass. The results are ghostly images in which a bright colored band marks the diurnal path of the sun over the allotted days. The extended exposures and dominant light source causes everything momentary to disappear and even any fixed structure to be reduced to a vague silhouette. Allreds’ are visually compelling images reeling with poetic implications on the transitory nature of experience.

Chris McCaw, one of two artists exhibiting currently at the Woodbury Museum of Art in an exhibit titled Active Light, does something similar. His silver gelatin images track the sun’s path over a shorter period of time, but in a very visceral way. McCaw stumbled on his technique during a camping trip that involved too much whisky: when McCaw forgot to wake up to close the shutter on an all night exposure, the rising sun burned the negative and ruined the image. McCaw embraced the inadvertant folly, and now purposely exposes his silver gelatin negatives to the effects of the sun over long exposures. The overall tonality of his black and white images becomes inverted in a process called solarization, while the sun literally burns the paper either in a single point, like a cigarette burn, or in an arc across the sky, making the final image resemble a cross between Ansel Adams and Lucio Fontana. In addition to the visual interest of their unique and inverted tones, McCaw’s images radiate with both heat and movement so that the viewer feels the burning presence of the sun, can almost smell the cooking gelatin, and senses the spinning sphere beneath their feet.

McCaw’s exhibition partner, Barry Underwood, approaches light in a dramatically different way, though he too is interested in chemicals and the land. Underwood investigates rural, suburban and urban sites, studying their various uses and in them creates light installations that he documents with his camera. Using LED lights, glowsticks, balloons and other apparatus (the magician is understandably hesitant to reveal his tricks), Underwood intervenes on a scene, providing otherworldly presence to natural and industrial scenes. In some instances Underwood’s images resemble over-produced commercial photography, and the artist plays up the artificiality of his constructed images with Shakespearean titles like “Prospero” and “Oberon and Titiana.” In other cases, though, where a mountainside is lit up by a field of pale yellow lights, or a school of fish is implied by green orbs floating in a lake, we are reminded of the variety and mystery of nature, like the field of lightning bugs that appears in one of Underwood’s images.

In Active Light, both arists are using nature, chemical reactions and light to create compelling images. That McCaw’s images feel more closely connected with the natural world, more raw or honest, may simply have to do with analog nostalgia — that impulse to enjoy the hiss in a vinyl record.

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