BACK WHEN PHOTOGRAPHY first got started, around the middle of the 19th century, scientifically-minded enthusiasts praised it for its superiority to the soft, subjective medium of painting. The camera, they believed, was an admirable new tool of hard-edged objectivity and realism. In service more to science than to art, it would accurately record the truth about the world.
Two concurrent one-woman shows at the Center for Creative Photography defy those naive assumptions. Both artists assert that photographers, as much as any other artists, impose their own vision on what they're seeing. In the smaller exhibition, Patterns of Connection, Australian photographer Leah King-Smith challenges the conventions of 19th-century ethnographic photography. King-Smith re-uses old documentary photos of Aborigines as source materials for her manipulated photographs that restore these people to their lands.
Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, a major contemporary American photographer, exhibits nearly 100 photographs in a mid-career restrospective called Within This Garden. There's hardly anything "real" about any of her dreamlike pictures of Egyptian pyramids on the California beach or waters rising up on Greek statuary in a Wisconsin lake or riders crossing a plain on horseback. Thorne-Thomsen creates these dreamscapes herself. Her pictures are masterpieces of manipulation, but, unlike King-Smith, who does her tinkering in the darkroom, Thorne-Thomsen works her changes out in the field. She puts her tiny props in the sand or the edge of the sea, lies down to give herself a worm's-eye view of the scene and then photographs it with a pinhole camera and paper negatives.
Her primitive technology, similar to the equipment the earliest photographers used, gives her tiny, sepia-toned pictures a blurry, antique look. The pinhole camera creates deceptive depth, allowing a few feet of real-life beach to stretch on for imaginary miles in the pictures. "Rider, California," 1982, seems to show an olden-days explorer ambling along on horseback through a vast and distant plain. The "truth" is that the figure was one of Thorne-Thomsen's little toy props, situated just a few inches from her face, and the "miles" of land in her imaginary landscape were generated by just a few feet of beach.
Thorne-Thomsen, 52 years old, taught photography for years at Columbia College in Chicago and later served as photography head at the University of Colorado in Denver before striking out to earn her living through her art alone. But even during her teaching years she traveled widely, in Greece, Italy, France, Mexico and all over the U.S., including the desert Southwest. The art archetypes she's absorbed--ancient Greek pillars, monumental ruins in Egypt, the distant magical landscapes that lie behind Renaissance portraits, the enclosed and manicured gardens of pre-Revolutionary France--all turn up in her works.
Nineteenth-century expeditionary photography echoes in Thorne-Thomsen's "Altar, Wisconsin," 1991, which shows two tiny figures atop an ancient statue set in water. The chair flying over the lake in "Chair Over Point, Wisconsin," 1983, or the toy plane crashing in "Airplane Disaster, Illinois," 1976, suggest Surrealism, just as her lonely public spaces bring to mind the painter Giorgio de Chirico. The images seem familiar already, because they're drawn from our collective memory. (Thorne-Thomsen is also a student of Jungian psychology.) And in a funny way, they create themselves. The artist cannot actually see through her pinhole camera. She can set the scene up as best she can, position the camera and then wait to see what develops. Like the automatic writing of the Surrealists, Thorne-Thomsen's psychic gardens are created by an exercise in chance and her faith in the imagination.
The irony of a photographer not actually seeing her subject would not be lost on King-Smith, the daughter of an Aboriginal mother and a white father. The ethnographic portraits she found of her Aboriginal forebears--lined up row by row, dressed in government-issue European clothing, isolated from the land that was crucial to their identity--reveal much more about the unseeing conquerors than they do about their subjects.
For her project, King-Smith retrieved the old pictures from archives, where she found they had been catalogued according to racist classifications. Second, she photographed the land that had once been theirs. Then in an act that was as much a political as an artistic revisioning, King-Smith combined the old portraits and new landscapes into single images. Her haunting pictures, too, evoke a kind of dreamtime. The ghostly ancestors hover in their old homeplaces. The chemical manipulations and unrealistic colors King-Smith has injected give the works an emotional quality that borders on the nightmarish.
An old woman with a bandaged head, recorded in the archives only as Aunt Sally, gazes out of a forest that seems to be going up in flames. A young man unidentified even by name floats before a spreading tree, his face blown up to heroic proportions. He looks puzzled, and you can imagine him trying to figure out the the game plan of the colonial portraitist aiming his gaze at him through a camera. But in King-Smith's picture it's the young man who directs back at us, through the years, a gaze of accusation.
Within This Garden: Photographs by Ruth Thorne-Thomsen and Patterns of Connection: An Exhibition of Photo-Compositions by Leah King-Smith continue through May 28 at the Center for Creative Photography on the UA campus. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free admission. For more information call 621-7968.
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