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Absorbing landscape show at Etherton charts future of land—and photography

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Jody Forster is a consummate master of old-school photography.

Take his gorgeous 1978 photo "Winter Storm Clearing, Superstition Mountains, Arizona," now at Etherton Gallery.

Shot with an 8 by 10 view camera and old-fashioned film, the black-and-white photo captures the dramatic conclusion of a desert tempest. The billowing clouds of a winter storm fill the sky, but they're starting to recede. A few of the clouds are still dark and angry, but the others are turning toward the light. Below, the jagged Superstitions angle across the horizon. And at the center of the photo is a monumental saguaro, caught in a brilliant flash of sunlight.

At 30 inches high and 40 inches wide, "Winter Storm" is big enough to convey the expanse of the infinite West. Forster studied with landscape master Ansel Adams after learning photography at Cal State at Los Angeles, and Forster's West, like Adams', is unspoiled. In none of Forster's 12 pictures on view will you find a single human habitation, or even a human. No roads or gas stations or fast-food joints mar his sweeping portraits of pristine deserts and canyons, and stormy skies. And his gelatin silver prints, also like the master's, are luscious, with a wide range of tones both dark and light

An Arizona artist living in Mesa, Forster shot all his images in this show shot in Arizona, New Mexico or Colorado.

Forster is one of three photographers in Sightlines, an exhibition that investigates not only different approaches to landscape but the ever-changing techniques of photography.

"This show is of three landscape photographers who are as different as you can get," gallery proprietor Terry Etherton says.

Forster, of Mesa, Arizona, represents the classic film photography of the Adams school, using traditional tools and long-cherished techniques to focus solely on the natural beauty of the terrain.

Dick Arentz, a retired professor at NAU, has long been a maker of platinum photographs. But in recent years he's traded that 19th-century process for up-to-the-minute digital.

And Daniel Leivick, a generation younger than either Arentz or Forster, has given up the camera altogether. His appropriations from Google Earth are landscape abstractions that meditate on environmental abuse. Like his exhibition-mates, Leivick has a connection to Arizona. Now based in Los Angeles, he studied at ASU with the master teacher and landscape photographer Mark Klett.

Arentz's embrace of the new technology comes as a surprise. As a longtime leading practitioner of platinum photography, he taught the technology and even wrote a how-to book. A distinctive process that requires the photographer to coat the paper with chemicals, platinum yields lovely sepia tones and stable images.

But the equipment required is bulky and the process time-consuming; Arentz's switch to a lightweight Leica digital camera has been liberating, Etherton says. Burdened in the past with a 12 by 20 view camera and tripod, Arentz could make "maybe eight exposures a day," Etherton says. Now he can make dozens.

The 13 works in this exhibition are all lovely tone poems of the Scottish countryside, printed in a small scale, none of them bigger than 11 by 16 inches. Some picture only the lonely landscape or the sea; others have solitary cottages or churches standing in windswept swathes of open land. A few capture more urban spaces. An old town on the docks is lit up by sunlight reflected by the sea. A bus stop that's essentially a human-sized glass box brings a touch of the modern to a rural road.

Remarkably, Arentz's tones are as rich and deep as those he got in his platinum work. The secret is in his Piezography inks, which permit seven luscious shades of gray and black. One miniseries within the show, exquisite views of beach and water, demonstrates the range of these tones.

"North Bay, Hoy, Orkney Isles, Scotland," 2013, shows the bay glistening below a dark, threatening sky, with a gently rolling landscape in gray on the far side of the water. In "Loch 2, Isle of Lewis, Scotland," 2008, a pale lake widens into a shimmering trapezoid flanked by a dark bank of hills. "Loch na Moracha 7, Isle of Harris, Scotland," 2010, shot at the end of day, a band of light glows along the horizon, just above water of darkest black.

Leivick dispenses altogether with past notions of what landscape is, and even what photography is. Where Forster painstakingly mounts his photos, cuts his own mats and makes his own frames, Leivick works entirely on the computer. And where Arentz and Foster travel out into the world seeking beauty, Leivick treks through cyberspace.

He harvests Google Earth images of wilderness and suburbia, then crops what he's found and "stitches" pieces from different sites back together. The virtual collages he spits out from his inkjet printer are composites that are part real, part imagined. Blown up to a large scale, in color, filled with giant circles and squares, the works become geometric abstractions of landscapes that don't actually exist.

The 14 pieces here are drawn from a series called Heliopolis, or City of Light. "Slums and Panopticon Prison" pictures a tiny nine-sided prison dropped atop a soaring craggy mountain; at the foot of this craggy monster, a minuscule suburb is rapidly encroaching on the wilderness.

The titles give hints of Leivick's environmental preoccupations: "Grazing Lands," "Wind Farm" and so on. "Encroachment #3" is a distant aerial view of an imaginary Southwest landscape, with tiny ticky-tacky houses and swimming pools expanding like a virus. "Oilfield and Irrigation," a patchwork of crop circles and squares imposed on the land," is colored a sickly amber and black.

Though Leivick doesn't reproduce the spectacular landscapes so beloved of Forster and Arentz, he probes the destruction of these cherished places. His work, both thoughtful and radical, is about nothing less than the future of the earth, not to mention the future of photography.

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