Truthfulness vs. illusion

Amy Lamb's pictures are a kind of poetic speech


July 14, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Postmodernism has put photography in the somewhat uncomfortable position of having been the most volatile of all the arts of the past three decades.

It has become a bridge between the modernist project of the early 20th century and the reaction against modernism that set in during the 1970s. Among the former may be counted such "straight" photographers as Eugene Atget, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson; the latter would include Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince.

Postmodernists reject photography's claim to truthfulness. For Sherman and her fellows, photographs are no different from any other image. Though they may mimic the "real" world, they are actually cunningly contrived "constructions" -- representations of people and things whose significance is socially determined rather than intrinsic. Photographs don't "trace" the world, postmodernists argue, they transform it.

This has left the inheritors of the modernist, or "straight" photographic tradition in something of a quandary. They cannot completely ignore the postmodernists' critique, yet their images lose much of their significance absent the underlying modernist assumption that photographs enjoy a privileged relationship to truth.

Amy Lamb, a molecular biologist turned artist whose stunningly precise images of flowers are on view at Steven Scott Gallery through Sept. 23, is a "straight" photographer who has managed to negotiate the philosophical challenge of postmodernism with what can only be described as a willful insouciance. For her, flowers are inherently symbolic objects, and so to capture their images in photographs is simply to give sensuous form to a higher reality that the whole of the visible universe must conform to.

This is what gives Lamb's flower photographs a peculiar metaphysical integrity. Even though one recognizes that each image is carefully composed, lit and printed -- that is, its evident artificiality -- the photographs still manage to convince us that they reveal profound truths about the world. Her pictures are a kind of poetic speech, metaphorical, symbolic and expressive of a deeply personal response to nature that seems truth enough in itself solely because the artist persuades us to share her delight in her subject.

Steven Scott Gallery is at 9169 Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 410-902-9300.

For more art events, see Page 32.

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