Chance to see nature in a whole new light

Landscape: Laurie Snyder's and Philip Bogdan's images make us reconsider how we describe the world.

Fine art

January 29, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The invention of photography radically changed people's relationship to images because it revolutionized their ideas about what pictures could look like and mean. Two shows currently at area galleries demonstrate that the camera can describe the world in characteristically minute detail, even when the images it produces are not photographs at all in the conventional sense.

Laurie Snyder's exquisite black-and-white images of trees at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery, and Philip Bogdan's large color prints of woods at the Maryland Federation of Art's City Gallery, revisit the idea of landscape by calling into question the nature of photographic representation. (Snyder's photographs are part of an exhibit called Pairings, also featuring the work of John Wood, Stacey McKenna and Bob Salazar.)

Snyder's pictures are negative images, which she creates by reversing the usual process of making positive prints from a film negative. Instead, she develops the film as a positive transparency, then enlarges them in the darkroom to produce black-and-white negative prints on paper.

The resulting images are striking, richly detailed descriptions of the patterns made by the stark white forms of tree trunks and branches against a jet black sky. As pictures, they are immediately convincing, though the absolute reversal of the black and white tones and the suppression of all the intermediate grays give them an abstract character that seems almost inimical to the idea of photography.

Snyder's negative landscapes are a logical extension of earlier investigations into the nature of photographic representation defined by the camera's unsurpassed ability to record all the tiny gradations of brightness between black and white.

The earliest photographic process, the Daguerreotype, produced a direct positive on a metal plate coated with photosensitive chemicals. The Daguerreotype process was famed for the subtle rendering of light and shadow, which far surpassed the ability of the human hand.

But Daguerreotypes were unique; there was no way to reproduce them. It wasn't until William Henry Fox Talbot perfected his calotype process in the 1840s that an unlimited number of positive prints could be made from a single negative.

However, there is no evidence that Talbot or the other early photographers who used similar processes ever considered the negative as anything other than a step toward creating positive prints. For them, the negative itself was devoid of aesthetic interest.

Some early photographers did experiment with alternative processes. The so-called photogram is an image produced by placing small objects like leaves or jewelry on a piece of photosensitive paper, then exposing the paper to light. When the paper is put into a developing solution, the outlines of the objects emerge as white or light gray against a black background.

In the 1920s and '30, photographers like Man Ray also experimented with a process called solarization, which involves flashing a partially developed print with light in the darkroom, then quickly immersing it in an acid stop bath.

The finished image shows a partial reversal of tones, and has characteristics of both a positive and negative print. But the process is difficult to control or duplicate, making each solarized image virtually unique.

Snyder's pictures extend these experiments to their logical extreme. By turning a positive film image into a negative print, she makes the viewer explicitly aware of the pictorial conventions by which we recognize photographs as descriptions of the world.

There are, of course, many areas in which negative images are considered perfectly normal - for example, X-ray images of the body or long-exposure astronomical photographs made by cameras mounted on telescopes. Snyder's pictures force us to consider whether negative images of the ordinary world around us are any less "realistic" - or beautiful - than those created for these specialized applications.

Night photographs

Bogdan declined to discuss the exact sequence of steps employed to create his images, but the process apparently involves setting up a large-format view camera in the woods at night, then making several time exposures, some lasting as long as nine hours.

The film is developed and the colors artificially enhanced, possibly using a computer, before the image finally is transferred to a color transparency and enlarged by a reversal process into a Cibachrome color print.

The resulting photographs have a dream-like, otherworldly quality that give Bogdan's images of trees and underbrush an anthropomorphic character that in all likelihood would not be readily apparent in the plain light of day. Bogdan's color-enhanced night photographs evoke the surreal appearance of X-ray pictures in which the interior structures of the body are revealed.

Both Snyder and Bogdan's images implicitly ask the viewer to reconsider the conventions that allow us to read photographs as straightforward descriptions. Strange as these pictures may appear at first glance, they are ultimately convincing representations for the same reasons as other photographs - they present a world so realistically detailed that in the end we are compelled to believe in the truthfulness of the image, no matter how startling or unfamiliar it may seem.

The Maryland Federation of Art's City Gallery, 330 N. Charles St., is open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Rosenberg Gallery is in the Kraushaar Auditorium on the Goucher College campus, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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