Photographer shares panoramic views

MICA grad uses mirrors, lights in companion show at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Art Review

January 20, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Neil Meyerhoff's travel photographs of Cuba, China and Japan at C. Grimaldis Gallery this month are a happy continuation of this Baltimore artist's experiments abroad with the distinctive, extreme-wide-angle imagery of the panoramic camera.

Meyerhoff uses the Hasselblad XPAN, a small, handy 35mm camera that produces eye-popping, unbroken images across a full 71-degree field of view (the normal field of vision of the human eye, by contrast, is only about 45 degrees). The effect is to make marvelously concrete the concept of the panorama -- literally, to "see all."

A lot of these pictures will remind viewers of the sort of pretty travelogue photography popularized by such magazines as National Geographic. There's little here of the gritty documentary idiom or the photojournalistic exposes of world-shaking events.

But in his best pictures, Meyerhoff's gentle vision does more than simply skim the surface of his subjects; there's a playful curiosity in his work and also a certain formal elegance that harks back to a long history of picture-making in far-away places, evoking the days when photographs really were an infant form of television that allowed viewers to "see from a distance."

Recall that, along with portraits, architectural views and landscapes, travel pictures were among the earliest -- and most popular -- photographic genres to emerge out of the inventions of Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot.

Photography was less than a decade old when the pioneer practitioners of the new medium began to venture abroad to capture images of exotic and distant lands.

By the early 1850s, artist-entrepreneurs like Maxime Du Camp, August Salzmann and John Beasely Greene had traveled to Italy, Greece and the Middle East to produce a remarkable photographic inventory of the monuments of antiquity, including the pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis in Athens and the storied places of the ancient Holy Land.

Because primitive photographic processes required long exposures -- up to an hour in bright sunlight -- early travel photographers couldn't record people moving about in distant locales, though they often framed shots to include evidence of a vibrant human presence.

The earliest specifically panoramic shot I've been able to find is a faded but still lovely daguerreotype image of the Pont Neuf in Paris, taken by Frederick Von Martens in 1842 and now in that city's National Technical Museum.

The picture is approximately 6 1/2 inches by 20 inches and presents an uninterrupted view of the famous bridge over the Seine, and the city skyline behind it, with stunning clarity. Meyerhoff's panoramic photos have the same kind of spatial expansiveness, and because he works with fast lenses and films, he can also stop the motion of the people, vehicles and animals within his frame. The results are striking juxtapositions of line, color and mood that animate his compositions and make extended looking an almost visceral pleasure.

In the small rear gallery, Grimaldis has mounted the debut show of Chul-Hyun Ahn, a recent Maryland Institute College of Art graduate whose amazing mirrored light boxes are among the most original works I have seen recently.

Ahn's works are minimalist constructions that operate on the same principle as a set of barbershop mirrors, in which an image in one mirror is reflected by the mirror opposite it, creating an infinite series of reflections that seem to recede indefinitely into space.

In Ahn's constructions, however, the effect is produced by cunning use of a one-way mirror -- rather than by standing between two facing mirrors. Viewers peer through Ahn's one-way mirror into a box in which a fluorescent tube has been mounted. Behind the tube is a second mirror that forms the back of the box.

Because the mirror at the back of the box reflects both the image of the tube and its own reflection in the one-way mirror facing it, the space inside the box seems to repeat itself endlessly, creating an infinite series of images that appear to recede into the box.

Some of Ahn's pieces are mounted on the wall; others sit on the floor, where they give the impression of impossibly deep holes waiting to swallow up unwary visitors. But the optical illusion is all in good fun; a good deal of the pleasure of these pieces lies in the fact that we know the images are pure illusion, yet our eyes -- and bodies -- remain stubbornly convinced they are real.

Grimaldis is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday and by appointment. Call: 410-539-1080.

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