You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
In a decade shy of 200 years—since its invention by British artists seeking a faster, easier way to draw from life—photography has joined those two great clichés of human invention, fire and the wheel, as a universal extension of the human body. Even before the cellphone camera and the selfie swamped the field, the camera’s power to record daily life, from its most mundane moment to the most extraordinary events, didn’t just outpace its modest, artistic goals, but absorbed and transcended them: by now, the camera has provided an encyclopedia of vision, and documentary photos, whether the subjects were found or created to be photographed, have become the most influential photographic artworks, capable not only of capturing visual reality, but of creating pictures of anything the mind can imagine.
In an age when artists were expected, more than anything else, to be not just new, but revolutionary, the search for something new to photograph became a primary challenge, and the field has become cluttered with variations on familiar subjects and approaches. It’s not surprising, then, and not even a criticism, really, to note that the primary effect evoked by the photos of Jan Andrews and Trent Alvey, closing in a few days at the Alice Gallery, is deja vu. Putting it as simply as possible, they display between them the two dominant strategies of photography: Andrews points her camera at something familiar that she intends to reveal in a new way, while Alvey creates some visual effects not to be looked at, but for the sole purpose of making pictures of them.
Looking more closely, Andrews inverts the intentions of the architect Joseph Paxton, whose invention of the greenhouse coincided with that of photography, and who intended to make the secrets of nature accessible, decodable even, to everyone by bringing them indoors. Andrews turns her back on his scientific intentions to draw on the accidental abilities of glass and water to evoke mysterious emotional qualities. Alvey, whose blend of art and science exceeds Paxton’s, swirls pigment on the surface of water, summarizing in a single effect many of the aesthetic results of her lifetime spent exploring the intersection of natural and human histories. She, too, is concerned with fleeting emotions, but finds analogues to them in natural science.
A gallery full of paintings of a single subject may liberate the audience’s vision and whet their visual appetite, but a similar room full of photographic interpretations finds few enthusiasts, quickly boring too many viewers. Between them, the Julie Nester gallery in Park City and UMFA’s SALT program are currently showing eight artists who strive to overcome the limits photography has set for itself and operates within. Some return to the origins of the camera in painting, seeking a different path forward. Others seek to give the connection between their subjects and their audience the sense of imperative necessity they feel suited to the crisis of the moment.
At Julie Nester, the choice was made to limit the number of works actually on view—more are available than are shown—in order to take advantage of one of photography’s largely neglected powers. What we don’t get when we look at a photo printed in a book, mounted in an album, or tossed into a box with others, is how the realism of the photo process permits the mind to imaginatively walk into the picture. Except in motion pictures, and less often now even there, most photos are shown much smaller than the mural format the gallery employs here. Only when the photos are this large can the physiological sense, the perception that there is room to come closer and enter the space in the picture, feel real.
Carol Inez Charney is an artist who self-consciously wants to take photography closer to its origins in painting, though of course the kind of painting she ultimately chose to make wasn’t seen until much later: not only later in art history, but in the development of color printing chemistry. If the painters who invented photography were seeking a means to fix light on a surface, Charney could be said to liberate it, and to do so in works that recapitulate both the sequence of events that led her to work the way she does and the thought process that brought her there. The stained-glass windows that initiate the visual conversation in each photo provide a richly textured, brilliantly-colored plane, one that is well lit and easy to focus overall. The leaded, geometrical patterns in the windows provide subject matter that is easily grasped and appreciated, while the objects beyond, the things outside blurred by the window, provide a sense of depth and a hint of mystery. Yet Charney doesn’t stop there; rather, she prints those pictures and reshoots them through a second pane of glass, one nearer the camera and covered by water, flowing or frozen, that sets up a dynamic event, full of accidents playing out in multiple dimensions. The window is liberated from its architectural setting, the light and colors freed from their specific origins as well. She makes full use of the brilliantly saturated colors available today, and combines the two dominant approaches by both finding a new aesthetic approach to photographing a familiar subject and constructing something new to present to her lens.
Debra Bloomfield’s recent collections, Oceanscapes and Wilderness, explore two of the Earth’s realms least altered by human intrusion, a point which she emphasizes by depicting them with neither human presence nor, with rare exception, manmade marks. The places she explores are predominantly cold, wintry scenes of leafless plants and untouched snow, as if to clearly express her regret at the necessity of an incomplete world, one where keeping people out is the only way to preserve Nature. Her colors tend toward pale, almost insubstantial hues, near-white foregrounds and white skies, their otherwise invisible meetings delineated by a distant shoreline or pierced by the vertical trunks of naked trees. Bloomfield’s empty landscapes, however expansive, hark toward a world of nature that does not include—some will hope has survived—the presence of humanity. Given those ecologists who now believe that since 1970, mankind has killed 60% of the world’s wildlife, she will not go without an audience who agrees with, even takes comfort in, her vision.
Portrait photographers long ago settled on a formula: use a long, almost telephoto lens and stand away from the subject. The goal is what’s called “good drawing,” wherein the features are flattened and seen at their best. Snapshot cameras, including cellphones, use wide-angle lenses that are always in focus, but unflatteringly exaggerate closer features, going so far as to produce the familiar “fish-eye” look. (Experts will point out that it’s not the lens that produces these effects, but the actual distance from lens to subject, which the different lenses allow the freedom to change.) Most nature photography is necessarily done at a distance, requiring the longer lens and producing the familiar Disney-slash-National Geographic, remote effect. Nine Francois rejects this, opting instead to use a wide-angle lens and charge as close as she can to her animal subjects, achieving a visual intimacy that includes the animal’s discomfort in a close encounter they associate with predators and prey. Instead of typical, iconic images, with their dishonest equation of the viewer and the viewed—showing us the wild the way we want to see it, on an equal footing and with the animals in command of their appearance and its impact—she shows us the animal world as it so often really is in its encounter with humans: finding themselves at a disadvantage.
Many photographers use the camera like a scalpel, opening up appearances to inspection. Vanessa Marsh and David Levinthal use it to examine mythic elements of landscape and its relation to people. What makes this timely is that while myth was long thought a deeper form of truth, today it’s more often a synonym for “misrepresentation.” Both artists also appear to spend more time modeling subjects to photograph than actually shooting them. Marsh’s silhouettes of readily identifiable horizon features, superimposed on spectacular night skies, may have been inspired by a visit to a planetarium. If so, it’s good to see someone finally bringing that bit of childhood magic out into the daylight. Levinthal’s Wild West series further mythologizes a pre-existing myth. His realistic settings and same-scale toy figurines represent the myth, while his large format Polaroid camera limits the depth of field—the distance between the nearest and the farthest things in the picture that are in focus—so that what he depicts seems much larger than it is, and distances, such as to the out-of-focus backgrounds, seem as vast as the West, itself.
The remaining artists in Julie Nester’s well-packed show enrich the viewing experience by layering their images, one literally and the other with references. Thea Schrack often covers her prints with an encaustic mixture of waxes, giving them a translucent depth and adding to the blurred or soft-focus effect she prefers. Rebecca Reeve draws conceptually on sympathetic artistic experiences, such as time spent as an artist in residence at the Everglades National Park. Another is reading the novelist, W.G. Sebald, in whose enormously influential The Rings of Saturn she encountered the domestic ritual of covering mirrors and paintings during a time of mourning. These sources lend resonance to her choice to photograph nature through domestic drapes, sometimes windblown and sometimes static. After framing the waterlogged landscape of southern Florida, she contrasted that environment with the dry scenery of Utah. The curtains separate the audience from the natural world, foregrounding the domestic scene of the human environment, while the transformation she reveals between the wet, fertile environment and the dry desert speaks to the adverse effects of what is increasingly called the “Anthropocene Era”—the geologic episode marking the overwhelming human impact on the Earth.
These nine artists all use familiar photographic tools and technique, some very conventionally and others more experimentally. At UMFA’s ongoing SALT project, though, one artist breaks convincingly with them, offering a vision not of now or the recent past, but of the almost certain future of photography: one rooted in a genuinely ancient tradition. Yang Yongliang reproduces what appear, from a distance, to be brush drawings of exotic, yet familiar landscapes of the sort that are synonymous with China, Korea, and Japan. Sharply defined, vertiginous hills and mountains, misty or forested on their flanks, are often crowned by gnarled and twisted trees or the huts of peasants or monks who eke out a living in their wilderness. Coming closer—the images are small, printed on translucent supports, and mounted in light boxes—one realizes that while the huts are modern slums, the pinnacles on which they stand are composed not of inky brushstrokes, but computer-manipulated cityscapes: tall, anonymous apartment buildings jammed together. Industrial structures complement torrential streams pouring through rocky defiles, and the buildings hanging precariously over them are homes, draped with laundry and other signs of urban life.
The climax of this dark room is a widescreen monitor on which an island city can be seen. Again, from afar it looks like a spiritual or poetic paradise, but closer it’s revealed to be a video, an animated collage of hundreds, even thousands of mostly moving images. Freeways and turnpikes divide the land, cars speeding along them like armies of ants. At the end of a fjord, a waterfall tumbles from an invisible source, and the fishermen’s boats below it turn out to be rich men’s yachts. At first, all the motion seems repetitive, pointless scurrying. That would be judgment enough. But Yang has another trick up his sleeve. Near the end of its seven-minute run, by which time most visitors will probably have wandered off, the video suddenly accelerates. Yang here reverses the rule by which models are used in the making of movies. For the water to fall so fast, the cars to cross the island so quickly, the distances must be smaller, not larger. The eye insists on it, and so the brain retakes the measure of the landscape. It begins to shrink, until it becomes no larger than a tabletop. It’s been a long time since such an effective lesson has been so adroitly taught by art. Be humble, it says, for your great works are really very, very tiny in this vast world.
PHOTO ‘18: featuring Debra Bloomfield, Carol Inez Charney, Nine Fracois, David Levinthal, Vanessa Marsh, Rebecca Reeve, Thea Schrack, Julie Nester Gallery, Park City, though November 20.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.