One evening in South Australia 30 years ago, a shaft of light broke through darkening clouds to the plain below.
The moment was brief, but Kate Breakey caught it on film. She called it "Hole in the Sky," and stashed it in a box.
Many years later, on a winter's day in the west of Ireland, Breakey turned her Hasselblad camera on a towering oak tree. The sky was gray, but for an instant, pale light flickered around the tree's bare branches. Breakey pushed the camera's shutter. Back home in the darkroom, she labeled the image "Tree, Shannon Road," and put it in the same box.
For three decades, wherever she traveled—in her native Australia; in Europe; in Texas; in Tucson, where she's lived for a dozen years—Breakey used her camera to record ephemeral moments in the landscape. The pictures turned into a kind of visual diary of her life, but she never exhibited them until now.
Slowlight, a midcareer Breakey survey that opened at Etherton Gallery last week, exhibits these lovely black-and-white pictures for the first time.
Like starlight, which can take millions of years to reach Earth, the Slowlight pictures were a long time coming, Breakey writes in the catalog. "Some of these images were made 30 years ago. It has taken that long for their 'light' to finally reach a place in my heart and the surface of a piece of paper."
It was worth the wait. Shot in old-fashioned film but printed in up-to-date archival pigment inkjet, these pictures are luminous shots of brambles and seas, of parched earth and moonstruck skies, of trees and sand and cliffs. There's not a human anywhere.
"Full Moon Rising, Mid-North, South Australia," 1981, is a classic in the Ansel Adams mode. The moon hangs above a scrub desert, half-hidden behind wisps of cloud. Dark mountains roll across the horizon. The picture is a nod, perhaps inadvertent, to Adams' 1941 "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," one of his most-beloved works. (It's hanging at the Center for Creative Photography through this Sunday.)
"Trees, Pine Hut Road, South Australia," 1981, apparently from the same Breakey trip, is another beauty. A big tree reaches out its branches. Below, a cascade of soft-edged roller-coaster hills tumble in and out of sunlight and shadow.
But Breakey also goes for the plain and unremarkable. "Road Crossing Near Coober Pedy, Central Australia," 1987, is the prototypical road to nowhere. Two godforsaken dirt tracks crisscross a barren blankness of land. As far as the eye can see, there's nothing but small rocks, bits of bush, an empty sky, a distant horizon. The vast empty space is a reminder of our own solitariness in the big universe, of being and nothingness.
"Single Wave, Coffin Bay, South Australia," 1998, is lovelier than "Road Crossing," with its sunlit mackerel sky and single white wave erupting on the ocean's smooth gray expanse. But it offers up some of the same uneasy feelings of loneliness in the face of nature as that empty outback. The Southern Ocean goes clear to Antarctica from South Australia, and Breakey used to gaze out on it when she was a child.
"Looking out into that incomprehensible endless nothingness. ... ," she writes in an earlier catalog, Painted Light, "I became utterly aware that I was a tiny vulnerable creature."
For years, Breakey didn't think of the Slowlight pictures as her real artwork. They're certainly different in almost every way from the painted photographs in her other series, particularly the critically acclaimed Small Deaths series. (Pictures from Small Deaths and other suites are also on view in this big show.)
For Small Deaths, Breakey wanders the desert, picking up the bodies of small animals and pieces of plants. She brings them back to the studio and photographs them, then prints the images onto big swaths of paper, enlarging the critters or flowers until they reach human size. The magnified lizards and birds turn into dignified beings, individual and universal at the same time. The pictures become permanent memorials to death.
"Vermilion Flycatcher," a Small Deaths piece in the show, pairs a glowing gold background with the bird's brilliant red plumage, as grand as any king's—and as tragic, as the big bird lowers its head in death.
Breakey still walks in nature to get the images for Slowlight, but she compresses a big landscape into a small space. (These photos are generally on the small side.) And the images are ephemeral, snatching a fleeting moment in time. The dead bird will stay dead for eternity, but that cloud in the Australian outback in "Hole in the Sky" will move on in a second; the light will die out; the hole may very well close up. The Irish rains might soon lash the bare branches of "Tree, Shannon Road." And in "Dunes," shot in South Australia in 2004, the wind blowing the spiky plants in the sand will change direction any minute. The cloud directly overhead will shift its shape.
In most of her other work, Breakey is both a painter and a photographer, lavishing color and sometimes texture onto slick photographic paper. The resulting mixed-media works are one-of-a-kind objects, gorgeous and rich.
"Still Life With Bowl of Cherries" glistens like a Dutch masterwork; the deep red of the fruit is reflected in the shine of a silver bowl. "Long-Nose Snake on Lace" is a striking symmetrical image. Breakey has carefully placed the serpent's corpse down the middle of a piece of cutwork lace; the lace's spirals and the snake's curves mirror each other precisely. Her palette is bold black and white, softened by bits of blue and beige. "Hybrid Tea Rose" is a bloom past its prime, its color a lovely faded pink.
The Slowlight photos are much simpler. Nature creates the image; Breakey just needs to isolate the composition. The black, white and gray tones are exquisite all by themselves, but Breakey applies just a touch of color by hand: a tiny bit of blue in that ocean, a trace of yellow in the Irish sky, just enough to make her mark, before time shifts and slips away.