Time Passing

Three talented photographers use classic techniques for their newest images

Photography lost something when fast film was first invented.

The new film allowed cameras to capture a single quick instant of life, what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the "decisive moment." But what photography lost, William Lesch believes, is the "eternal moment."

In the early days of photography, cumbersome cameras forced people--and places--to pose for long periods of time. The blurs in the resulting photographs showed where a toddler had squirmed in a mother's arms, where a tree branch rustled in the wind, and the fixed expressions of adults betrayed their struggle to stay still for what seemed an eternity. The camera literally recorded a chunk of their lives. Looking at those pictures now, we have the "illusion," as Lesch puts it, that we can see "time passing."

In his recent images, on view in the three-photographer Ephemeral Moment show at Etherton, Lesch is aiming to get that arty illusion back. He doesn't photograph people, though. He prefers instead to make exquisite black-and-whites of clouds scudding across the sky, of thunderclouds gathering darkly, of waves crashing on shores.

When he shoots, he exposes the film for hours on end, to chronicle movement over time. A cloud's journey across the sky--not just its final destination--shows up on the final photo. And Lesch uses an old-fashioned kind of film that deteriorates on the perimeter during processing. The result is pictures with rough edges. They look as though they've been around for years.

And they're beautiful. The thunderclouds that so mercifully gather over the Sonoran Desert each summer perhaps have never been rendered more eloquently. Lesch, who's lived in Tucson since the early '70s, needed to travel no farther than our own Sentinel Peak to get them.

In "Clearing Storm and Tumamoc Hill," 2004, Tumamoc's odd, flat top cuts horizontally--and darkly--across the bottom of the picture. It serves mostly as a platform for Lesch's big sky, where white wisps of clouds, lit from behind by the sun, playfully skitter away, their rain work done.

Turning in another direction, Lesch points his camera at downtown Tucson and the looming Catalinas. "Storm Clouds Over Tucson From A Mountain," 2005, is a spectacular panorama of the whole valley. But downtown's office towers, the UA football stadium and all of our other human landmarks are reduced to mere miniatures here. Even the 9,000-foot mountains are subservient to the great drama of the sky, where enormous clouds--twice the height of the Catalinas in the picture plane--are gathering to make rain. (Let's hope this show summons up that monsoon magic.)

The human element is just a footnote here, and Lesch more often plunges into pure nature--or flies up into it with his son, a pilot. In "Gathering Storm #17," he pictures the ethereal world of clouds; there's no mountain, no bit of earth anywhere, to ground the image. "Approaching Storm, Big Sur Coast," is a nice change to water. The Pacific gleams beneath sunlight breaking through clouds.

Lesch is not the only photographer in this exhibition playing tricks with time. Each of the others, Mark Klett and Ken Rosenthal, has his own distinctive take.

Mark Klett, now a regent's professor of photography at Arizona State University, and one of Arizona's most esteemed photogs, has long been known for delving into geologic time. For his well-known Rephotographic Survey Project, he traveled into the Western wilderness to reshoot the canyons and cliffs first captured by the 19th-century expedition photographers.

His 20th-century photos, paired with the historical images, demonstrated nature's slow changes--the softening of a rock edge over a century, perhaps--as well as the rapid destruction wrought by man.

Lately, though, Klett's been pondering new Ideas About Time, the name of his suite of photos now at Etherton. The fruit of a Guggenheim Fellowship to investigate "time and space equations," these pictures were shot mostly in the desert near his home. Like Lesch, he makes hours-long exposures. They record the passage of sun, moon and stars over cactuses and mountains, but he uses repeated images--impossible in the real world--to thrust these heavenly bodies out of ordinary time.

In "Midday Suns," Old Sol appears no fewer than five times, serially arcing above a giant saguaro cactus, and finally descending to earth as a streak of light. The moon performs a similar feat in "Six Quarter Moons," tumbling in multiples through a dark sky toward a shadowy mountain range below.

It's no easy task to get these serial suns and moons. Klett must stay on duty at his tripod, repeatedly opening and closing the lens, making exposures of about 10 minutes each. To create the comet-like streaks of light, he has to expose the film for up to an hour. The spectacular double arc of "Moon and Sun Rising" required the lens to be open no fewer than 14 hours, from 7:30 one March evening until 9:45 the next morning.

And while Klett is a master of all of photography's latest technological innovations, for this series, he returns to photography's past. The photos are small-scale gelatin silvers, lushly printed and toned with an old-fashioned amber tint. (Lesch, by contrast, captures his "eternal moments" in archival pigmented inkjet prints.)

Rosenthal also goes with gelatin silver prints, split-toned, for his poetic works. Unlike the other two, who are mesmerized by the land, Rosenthal concentrates on the psyche, creating an eerie dream time in his soft-edged images. Many of his deliberately blurry pictures are set outdoors, in a thick forest, beside a body of water, but they're more like memories than actual places.

Children are major players. Sometimes, Rosenthal seems to be investigating the psychological turf of his own young daughters and sometimes his own half-remembered boyhood, but the pictures speak to the universal experience of childhood.

The works teeter back and forth over the shadowy border between contentment and terror, dream and nightmare. A child in a tub in a sunlit room is lovely, but might she be about to tumble into the water and drown ("FB-41-1" from the series A Dream Half Remembered)? A forest path ("TIF-54-11/12" from the same series) is alluring, but it may lead as easily to the witch's house as to the fairy glen.

Many of these pictures have been exhibited in Tucson before, at a show at Pima Community College in 2005 ("Ambiguous Surroundings," Dec. 15, 2005). But the photos in the Days Between series are new. Darker and blurrier than ever, they traipse the liminal space between earth and sky, between day and night.

The new preoccupation links Rosenthal more closely to the landscape photographers with whom he shares this show. And in one, "ROL-52-9," he seems to be sojourning in Klett's cosmos. It's an elusive landscape of pale land below and dark heaven above, with a barely visible horizon separating the two. But a shaft of light spills right down the middle. This vertical streak might have been a phantom, a nightmare ghost, in the Dream Remembered series. But here, alongside Klett's heavenly bodies, it's a flash of comet zooming toward earth.

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