Framing his view of Pictorialism

Critic's Corner//Art

Photographer Kneessi's depiction of Chesapeake life is on display

Art Column

September 13, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The death last week of Maryland landscape photographer Marion E. Warren saddened all who treasured his sensitive depictions of life on the Chesapeake Bay and its environs, a project that occupied him for much of the final two decades of his life.

Warren's sympathetic images documenting the history and culture of the Chesapeake generally fall into the category of Pictorial photography, a style that emphasizes the picturesque aspects of the artist's subject, and whose origins go back as far as late-19th-century Impressionist landscape and genre painting.

Warren, along with former Sun photographers A. Aubrey Bodine and Hans Marx, produced stunning maritime views of bay subjects. He was renowned as a master of the Pictorial style long after it had been displaced among the avant-garde by the advent of modernism in the 1930s.

Pictorialism lives on, however, in the work of Annapolis photographer Don Kneessi, whose luminous depictions of sailing vessels, oyster boats and the rural Eastern Shore landscape are on display in Light of the Chesapeake, a fine exhibition of maritime photographs at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi.

Like Bodine and Warren, Kneessi has dedicated himself to recording a traditional way of life endangered by the relentless encroachment of modernity.

And like his predecessors, he frames his subject in heroic terms, with vast expanses of dark water set against distant sails and billowing white clouds or sparkling reflections of sunlight dancing over the waves.

In these images, Kneessi reveals his indebtedness to an indigenous school of American maritime painting pioneered by such artists as Frederic Edwin Church and Fitz Hugh Lane, whose experiments with the dazzling effects of light on water in the mid-19th century preceded those of the Impressionists by nearly a decade. (In 2004, the National Gallery of Art in Washington mounted a superb exhibition of these once-neglected American masters.)

Church, Lane and others such as Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford developed a style, later dubbed Luminism, that was similar to that of their contemporaries among the Hudson River School, who sought to capture the appearance of the sublime in nature as evidence of American exceptionalism.

Many of Kneessi's images, like those of the great New England seacoast painter Winslow Homer, seem to hark back to that earlier era's unquestioning confidence in hardy rural values and rugged individualism.

Kneessi's craggy portraits of Chesapeake Bay watermen, in particular, have an undeniable stoic grandeur that not even the sobering approach of obsolescence for their generations-old way of life quite effaces.

Yet Kneessi at times also seems willing to indulge the postmodernist's whimsical mix-and-match approach to art-historical styles.

A section of the exhibition that focuses on sepia-toned images of tall ships like the Pride of Baltimore II, for example, is printed on textured matte paper in a deliberately archaic style that mimics late-19th-century etchings.

Further on, a series of images of bleached whale bones is done up in the early modernist style of "straight" photography pioneer Edward Weston, while the show's final images of reflected light on water are as wholly nonrepresentational and abstract as the mystical landscapes of Minor White.

These stylistic detours don't really add up to much, nor do they help the exhibition thematically, though they demonstrate a certain technical agility and bravura.

Otherwise, this is a lovely exhibition of images executed in a serviceable evergreen style. It's not new, but it more than does justice to the venerable tradition of Pictorial photography.

"Light of the Chesapeake" runs through Oct. 22 in the Arts Program Gallery at University of Maryland University College, 3501 University Blvd. E. in Adelphi. Call 301-985-7937 or go to umuc.edu/art/kneessi.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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