Filler Eyes On The World

Etherton Gallery Features The Works Of Wandering Art Photographers.
By Margaret Regan

LINDA CONNOR HAS wandered over China, India, Tibet, Turkey, Israel and France, and turned an eye upon the heavens.

Dick Arentz has immersed himself in New Zealand. Mark Klett has roamed the hills of Portugal, Debbie Fleming Caffery the villages of Mexico. Jay Dusard and Jody Forster have stayed closer to home, in the American West.

In these days, when photojournalists routinely provide us with up-to-the-minute, full-color images from the most remote reaches of the world, these six artists remind us there are still wandering art photographers who cover the globe at their leisure.

Black and White/Six Photographers in Mid-Career, a sumptuous show at Etherton Gallery, exhibits the work of accomplished artists who hearken back to an earlier tradition. You get the feeling they're willing to wait almost forever for the perfect shot, something the deadline-pressed photojournalist usually gets only through serendipity. You can just imagine Connor patiently biding her time for just the right natural light to illuminate some drinking glasses in a Jerusalem monastery ("Balanced Glass," 1995), or Klett tarrying until the dark storm cloud blew in over a gleaming white Portuguese cottage on a hill ("Advancing Cloud," 1995). All six stay with the austere black and white of the past, and Connor even leans toward the sepia tones of the 19th century.

The photographers mostly prize the finely detailed, exquisitely textured print, and by and large they refuse to give up the complicated, old-fashioned equipment that lets them get those prints. Arentz, well known for his evocative images of the Southwest, lugged along to New Zealand his antique banquet view camera with a 12-by-20-inch lens. The effort's worth it. He makes direct-contact palladium prints that allow for extraordinary detail, whether it's the branches of a spreading fig tree in Auckland or the long view of grassy meadows in Monowai, New Zealand.

But for all their respectful adaptations of the photographic traditions of the past, there's a lot that marks this bunch as contemporary. Klett, for instance, has long labored toward a more truthful version of landscape photography. He made his reputation by re-photographing the places the explorer photographers shot in the 19th-century West. His late-20th-century reprises almost invariably show the degradation that followed on the heels of development. He wants to show just how people have mucked up the land, and in almost every one of his images we see the mark of a human hand.

In Portugal, he lingered around a new dam on the Douro River, making gorgeous photographs of some pretty ugly stuff, such as construction debris from the dam piled up below terraced fields. In a nod to his re-photographic survey work in the American West, he did a before-and-after shot of the Douro dam. He even managed to find an idyllic tile painting of the Douro pre-dam, showing the unfettered river winding gently off into the distance among the hills. He took a photo of the old tile picture and paired it with a new photo he shot from the vantage point that the tile painter must have used. This time, a big concrete dam rudely slams across the riverbed.

Likewise, Connor did what her 19th-century forebears likely would have found unthinkable: making use of someone else's images as a kind of found object. The photographer discovered a trove of old glass negatives at the University of California's Lick Observatory, and printed up the unknown photographer's pictures of stars shining in the darkness. Then she paired the old pictures with her own in diptychs, matching them up by similar shapes or pinpoints of light. Connor's picture of votive candles glistening in the dim cathedral at Chartres, in France, for instance, is teamed with a view of tiny stars scattered all over the night sky; the rounded opening in a curving wall in Turkey goes with a huge orb glowing in the darkness. It's an odd technique, but somehow by coupling the temporal with the infinite, Connor manages to underline the timeless quality of her images.

Most of these photographers put very few people in their pictures. One exception is Dusard, who along with his big western landscapes makes almost sacred images of cowboys and girls placed among their horses and buildings. Caffery, working mostly out of Mexico, probably comes closest to the sensibility of the photojournalist, though her deliberately murky shots would get her bounced from the newsroom in a minute. But she's interested in telling moments that are psychologically charged--a staring little girl standing watch over a front of a row of lit candles, a caped horseman galloping along the rice paddies of Louisiana under a gathering storm.

Caffery is an exception to the other five in other ways, too. She is of the new breed of photographer who's pushing the boundaries of the medium, giving up fine textures and detail in favor of a painterly, moody rendering of dark and light. She's just about full circle away from the classic shots of Jody Forster on a neighboring wall at Etherton. Forster's Southwest works are all grand photographs of the old school: monumental visions of the Colorado River meandering through the depths of the Grand Canyon, lone Shiprock jutting up over the flats of northern New Mexico, a thunderstorm breaking over Canyon de Chelly. And if Forster's works also hint at the derring-do that adheres to photojournalists--just where did he perch to get these pictures?--he's not in the least interested in photojournalists' preoccupation with the shock of the new. He's interested in big silences, in timelessness and in keeping to tradition.

Black and White/Six Photographers in Mid-Career continues through June 1 at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, andw 7 to 10 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of the month. For more information call 624-7370. TW

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