Depicting the vitality in decaying specimens

Critic's Corner//Art

High-tech images challenge ideals

Art Column

October 25, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

When Robert Creamer looks at a wilted iris blossom, he thinks not of decline but of the melancholy beauty that can be found in the process of aging. When he examines the firework pattern of a dried peony or the skeletal remains of a tree frog, he is not saddened but inspired by the loveliness of a once-living thing and the magical transformations wrought by the passage of time.

Now the Baltimore artist's stunning, large-scale color photographs of flowers, plants and zoological specimens in various stages of transition are the subject of a revelatory exhibition that goes on view tomorrow at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Transitions: Photographs by Robert Creamer presents a bouquet of botanical and zoological subjects created with a novel technique. Instead of using a camera and lens to make his monumentally scaled images, Creamer employs a high-resolution digital flatbed scanner that is in effect a souped-up version of an ordinary office copying machine.

The show includes about 60 digitally scanned photographs whose subjects range from the spidery veins of iris petals and the otherworldly magnificence of the lotus blossom to the paisley-patterned feathers of wild pheasants.

"I'm challenging the traditional notion of beauty as something perfect and flawless," says Creamer, 58. "I'm showing decaying specimens, things that are past their peak, that are in a state where normally they would have been discarded, all as a way of looking for a new kind of beauty."

For hundreds of years, images of flowers in Western art have symbolized the fleeting nature of beauty and, by extension, the impermanence of life. From the 17th-century Dutch masters to Andy Warhol, artists have translated regret over life's passing into images of flowers whose beguiling structures and sensuous surfaces evoke the beauty and frailty of our own mortal bodies.

Yet Creamer's images are endowed with a thoroughly contemporary sensibility that forthrightly acknowledges the inevitable processes of aging and death. And they're rendered by means of cutting-edge technology that transforms these traditional symbols of mortality into intensely humane, even optimistic, expressions of the present.

Creamer discovered the technique of making images with the scanner almost by accident after having worked for decades as a landscape and architectural photographer using a traditional, large-format view camera.

He purchased the scanner for his commercial photo business but soon began experimenting by scanning images of things around the house or in his garden. He realized that by hooking up the scanner to his computer, he could operate it like an extremely high-resolution digital camera. He also discovered that the images it produced had a tactile quality quite unlike that produced by conventional cameras and lenses.

"The scanner is a long bar that traces a broad swath of light as it passes beneath the subject, whereas the camera's lens is a single-eye vision that converges on a specific point," he says. "You don't really recognize that until the image is on the wall and you look at it and realize you can stand anywhere in front of the picture and it's always staring directly back at you."

The effect, which is subtle, yet one that viewers feel viscerally, produces a kind of universal vision in which every point on the picture plane is experienced with a preternatural clarity, challenging the eye to see and interpret everything that is going on at once.

Creamer devised a method of suspending his subjects from strings attached to tiny booms positioned above the scanning bed. The flowers or other objects hanging from the booms barely touch the glass. Then he rigged up a tent made of black cloth and draped it over the booms and scanner, which cut out any extraneous light and isolated the subject against a dark background.

Both the scanning technique and the choice of subjects involved a new understanding of the value of patience, Creamer says.

"I may pick a flower but not work with it for two week," he says. "I'll hold a beautiful lotus and recognize its pure beauty, but it's not something I want to work with immediately. I think I understand it's going to peak to a new beauty while it goes through this transitional stage of drying. It changes sculpturally, architecturally, not just in terms of its color and tones, and I'm waiting, chomping at the bit for the precise hour, the precise angle. Then, even when I scan it, it might not work, the elements don't translate as I imagine them. Within hours, something can go through a color change, and if I don't get it, it's lost and I'm not interested in it anymore."

Creamer speculates his images of flawed and decaying beauty may be unconscious intimations of mortality and expressions of his own evolving view of life's inevitable passages.

"I can't help but think this work is autobiographical in some way. There are many pieces, like the birds' nests, for example, where the nest was bound and closed but I put three eggs there - symbolic of my children who've left the nest," he says. "This work didn't really kick in until my kids were leaving, and I had the time ... to pursue it. And it's interesting to get this recognition now, when I've been in the photography business my whole life. Still, to get it on this end of all that makes me feel good."

"Transitions: Photographs by Robert Creamer" opens tomorrow and runs through June 24 at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington. An opening reception will be held Nov. 4 from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Call 202-633-1000.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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