Photographer's purpose illuminates Berlin's darkness

September 18, 1993|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

Does John Gossage only go out after dark? His nocturnal photographs of Berlin are so dark that the city's architecture is reduced to a dim silhouette. The only light sources are the street lamps punctuating the darkness like isolated stars. Even a rare cameo appearance by the moon hardly lends much light to these scenes.

Walking past the near-pitch black photographic images on display at the Grimaldis Gallery, you might well wonder why a photographer who by the very definition of his medium should be writing with light would instead write with darkness. In fact, if you walk past the photos too quickly, they're reduced to rectangular smudges against the gallery wall.

Illumination of his purpose comes when you consider another sort of wall, the Berlin Wall, which Mr. Gossage photographed in its final years of existence in the late 1980s. His series of Berlin Wall photos emphasize its looming, depressing bulk. There are virtually no people around in what amounts to a no man's land, and you get the feeling this is how the Wall appeared to East Germans trying to sneak across at night.

Mr. Gossage's somberly black-and-white approach to his subject differs radically from that of another American photographer drawn to the Berlin Wall, Leland Rice, whose large Cibachrome photographs of its graffiti-covered surface were previously shown at the Grimaldis Gallery. Although the present show belongs entirely to Mr. Gossage, it evokes colorfully contrasting memories of Mr. Rice's series. Here's hoping some future exhibit presents their work side by side.

Mr. Gossage prevents his work from becoming dreary by alternating his approach to the Berlin subject matter. In an immediately obvious sense, the photos range in size from very large to very small. In terms of visual detective work, he presents us with urban images ranging from buildings that are easily seen to others that can only be discerned after staring at the photographic darkness for a while. There also are alternating panoramic views and more claustrophobic close-ups.

And he has yet other photographs in which a small photographic image is surrounded by collage elements such as cigarette package labels, leaves and paper scraps actually collected from the "forbidden zone" that separated the two halves of Berlin. These add pale color to the overall composition.

More importantly, the collages take him away from the notion of photography as a medium in which technical concerns are paramount and take him toward the notion that the photographer's hand plays a direct role, too. Mr. Gossage's hand picked up German trash and artfully arranged it around the images generated by his camera.

Among the most effective pictures from these related series are "The Last Socialist Newspapers," in which the photograph of a discarded newspaper on the grass is complemented by a

collage incorporating a real leaf pressed as flat as paper; "Trip Wire, No Man's Land," a tight shot of a sinister wire running parallel to the horizon; "Great Dane," with its silhouetted dog too scary to pet; and "Die Nacht," which is so completely black that it reminds one of Malevich's all-black paintings.

ART REVIEW

What: "John R. Gossage: The Photograph and Its Double"

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through Sept. 25

$ Call: (410) 539-1080

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