B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
BEN RAMSON'S PHOTOGRAPHS at the Bero Gallery downtown bring to mind the original meaning of the word "photography."
Coined in the 19th century by John Herschel, a scientist and early aficionado of the new art form, the term comes from the Greek words for light--photo--and writing--graph. Photography, then, poetically, is writing with light. That's pretty much what Ramson does in the dark and glistening pictures in his Self-Portrait series. His shiny white human figures are twisted like calligraphic notations jotted across deep black backgrounds. In one, a somber human face gazes down on an alphabet soup of arms and legs wrapped around each other or stretched out horizontally. In another, a draped, seated figure glows out of the shadows, its human face rendered almost inhuman by the glare of the studio lights.
Ramson abandoned a lucrative career as a lawyer so he could take up the study of art. (One amusing mixed-media print lampoons the world of the law: neatly arranged rows of one-dimensional men and women in suits are shown arguing and gesturing. They're printed, pointedly, on the surface of a photograph of great depth.) Freed of what he considers the rigid mental gymnastics of the law profession, Ramson says he's now embarked on psychological explorations into the self. And in these dreamlike black-and-white pictures, he uses what's for him a new language of light and shadow.
The ex-lawyer-turned-artist is probably the most technically accomplished of the four artists in the show. But they're all relatively new to art--one is still in high school--and their experiments with their new medium give the exhibition the feeling of a work in progress. If they don't all exactly write with light, at least not yet, they each have an interesting take on just how much light ought to shine through in the finished photograph. Called Multigrade: A Show of Varying Contrast, the exhibit covers a broad light spectrum.
By and large, these artists are trying out a kind of photography that's not sharp or clear or naturalistic. They're experimenting with murky and blurry, with too bright and too dark. Early photographers would have envied the astounding clarity of line and tone allowed by today's cameras and chemicals. But in a way, the four Multigrade photographers have deliberately turned their backs on such technological progress. They deliberately try out techniques that otherwise might look like mistakes.
Torry Lydem, for instance, displays a collection of self-portraits that he's sometimes overexposed and sometimes under, presumably on purpose. By turns his face is washed out by light, obliterated by darkness and erased by neutral gray. In his experiments with light and absence of light, you can almost feel his boredom with conventionally lighted portraits, all aflutter with their drama of contrasts. But faces that are almost invisible, as in his series "Sad," are not exactly exciting either. Lydem, who has picked up a BFA in photography, adds interest and religious commentary to his poses with a hubcap halo here, a Jesus posture there.
Oliver Scott, the high school student, proclaims that he knew nothing about photography before he made the 11 promising pieces exhibited here. He makes tiny thumbnail works that translate the real world into abstract lights and shadows, crisscrossed by surprisingly sharp lines. You can sense the excitement he must have felt--not unlike somebody like Daguerre--as he discovered how to make tiny toned abstractions on paper out of piles of debris found in the real world, or how to make weird chemical blobs dribble their way onto his images. He has a thoroughly contemporary sensibility: He works with modern gelatin silver prints, creates deliberately obscure imagery, pins his pictures to rusty bits of found metal. Yet somehow his pictures look a little bit like old albumen prints, those early, startling transformations of the world to paper.
Set somewhat apart from the others thematically is S. Greenwell's multimedia piece, "Cannis Familia," based on found dog snapshots. Greenwell says she happened on a treasure trove of pictures near the dog pound. The snapshots chronicle generations of beloved Rovers and Spots, posing with their owners on lawn chairs, on couches, on linoleum kitchen floors. The oldest shows a settler family standing proudly with their dogs in front of their log cabin. Greenwell says she's fascinated by the way people seek to tame nature by taming dogs.
She worked the original snapshots into an altar complete with candles and then set out to make her own murky reprints. Greenwell had a curious MO, deliberately working her way backward from clarity. The originals were surprisingly sharp black-and-whites, taken by unknown amateurs. From these originals, she made paper negatives on photosensitive paper and then printed new pictures.
The brand-new pictures have only a marginal relationship to the originals. They're blurry and grainy, suggesting images drawn from memory. And they seem to travel through time, linking up the ubiquitous, clear snapshot of the 20th century to the rarer, hazier pictures of the
Multigrade: A Show of Varying Contrast continues through June 24 at Bero Studio/Gallery, 41 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For more information call 792-0313.
Cutline: Varying degrees: S. Greenwell's multi-media piece "Cannis Familia" (bottom) contrasts more technical, haunting works by Ben Ramson (top) in Bero Gallery's promising showcase of emerging talent.
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