Circular images evoke landscapes of the mind

Art: In his show opening tomorrow at Grimaldis Gallery, photographer Christopher Myers has made pictures in Eastern Europe with a dream-like quality.

January 04, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It's got to be tough being a young art photographer at the turn of the millenium. In the century and a half since its invention, photography has produced its fair share of original geniuses, from the elegant classicism of Eugene Atget, Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson to the gritty realism of Brassai, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

For a while in the 1980s, photography seemed to confront what some critics called a "crisis of the real," the feeling that pictures had become so ubiquitous in mass-media culture that the most significant act an artist could perform was to deconstruct the photograph's claim to truthfulness.

As a creative strategy, the kind of pictures that emerged from these ideas perfectly suited the fashionable critical theories of the era. But most people continued to believe that photographs had a unique relationship to reality, and that seeing was believing.

Christopher Myers, a young Baltimore photographer and graduate of the Maryland Institute whose show opens tomorrowat Grimaldis Gallery, has to contend with both the popular legacy of photographers like Weston and Cartier-Bresson and a postmodern critical climate that remains skeptical of the camera's claim to represent reality.

Myers straddles the dilemma by producing pictures of recognizable people and places taken through a vignetting mask in front of the lens that cuts off the corners of his images.

The resultant photographs -- all of which were taken this summer in various Eastern European cities -- have a voyeuristic, dream-like quality that suggests objects viewed through a keyhole or through some private portal into the psyche.

It is an interesting but not entirely original approach.

The vignetting effect seems reminiscent of the early work of Emmett Gowan, who for a while in the 1970s experimented with a short focal length lens on his 8-by-10 view camera that produced a round image on his negatives. Gowan claimed he arrived at his unusual format out of necessity -- he was too poor to buy a lens of the correct size.

Still, his luminous pictures of family members in Danville, Va., achieved a certain authenticity, if only because their circular shape served to remind viewers that the image produced by a lens is naturally round, and that the convention of trimming it to a square or rectangle is entirely arbitrary.

Myers' circular images work on a different level, suggesting a psychological landscape rather than a description of an actual physical space.

But unlike Gowan's pictures of wives, children and in-laws, the emotional bonds that tie these ancient Eastern European sites to the photographer remain obscure.

Myers has employed the vignetting technique on other subjects, including a series of nudes -- not part of this show -- that work partly because of the subtle way in which he employs light to deconstruct the human body and partly because of the obvious delight the artist takes in contemplating a beloved object.

The Eastern European pictures, by contrast, are interesting visually without ever quite managing to be emotionally convincing. Myers is technically adept and his printwork is radiant. One feels a dedication and commitment to craft here by a gifted young artist who is still searching for his true path.

More light on the subject

In an article late last year about the R. McGill Mackall mural in the Sun's lobby, I misstated some of the details regarding the watercolor on which it is based.

First, the watercolor, painted by a little-known early 19th-century American artist named T. Tanssen, is currently housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art but actually belongs to the collection of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, not the BMA.

Second, the work is not on permanent display, as I suggested, but is periodically rotated from its gallery in the museum's American wing to storage in the prints, drawings and photographs department, where it may be viewed by appointment.

The reason for rotating the watercolor is that all works on paper are extremely sensitive to the effects of prolonged exposure to light.

Whenever museums display such works -- be they Renaissance woodcuts, 19th-century lithographs or contemporary photographs -- special precautions must be taken to ensure that the works are protected from excessive light levels.

Often this entails minute measurements of the intensity of the light falling on each piece, calibrated in lumens, as well as special filters designed to cut out damaging ultraviolet and other potentially destructive rays from overhead light sources.

In fact, the potentially damaging effects of excessive light levels are not limited to works on paper. The pigments in paintings are also subject to being altered over time by continual exposure to strong lighting, as are textiles, certains woods and even some metals and porcelain.

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