Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In Love's Light

In Love’s Light

By Tom Wachunas

“I have never done commercial pictures – only of things which moved me deeply – and for love, not money.” - Nell Dorr –

Continuing with the glories of black and white photography, another must-see exhibition is “Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Nell Dorr,” currently on view at the Massillon Museum, through February 27. Nell Dorr (1893-1988) was a Massillon native who learned the art of photography from her father, Massillon portrait photographer Jacob Becker. She was a contemporary of (as well as friends with) Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Other friends (and subjects) included the poet Carl Sandburg, silent film star Lillian Gish, and the prominent children’s book author and illustrator Tasha Tudor.

The 75 images here present a remarkably diverse range of thematic interests on Dorr’s part, including portraits, landscapes, and some fascinating low- light / camera-less “abstracts” or “photograms” (on the second floor, where the exhibition continues from the first floor main gallery), which could fairly be called experimental and to some extent ahead of their time. Yet even at her most daring, all of her images consistently share an aesthetic approach that imbues them with ethereal, sometimes fleeting light. Many seem like they emerged from dreams and are on the verge of disappearing into them again.

We learn in the well-written text that accompanies the exhibit that Dorr was a proponent of “Pictorialism,” a Romantic-era aesthetic characterized by scenes in dreamy, soft focus, and one that largely fell out of favor by the mid-20th century. Elsewhere we read, “…Dorr never applied an exacting approach to the taking of pictures with regard to focus or exposure; it was in the darkroom where she concentrated her attention.” So Dorr steadfastly resisted what she saw as the hard-edge, cold detailing of straight photography. In that regard, I think a more telling label for her work could be Photolyricism.

That lyricism is like a poetic thread woven into everything Dorr photographed. She didn’t “take pictures” or even “make” them so much as she recognized a meaningful moment and unobtrusively borrow it. In the process, the softened forms in her compositions acquired a sensuous, even gently voluptuous aura. Yes, there are certainly posed shots, as in her adventuresome nudes wherein the models, like forest nymphs, are at one with their natural surrounds. But what all of her images exude is a palpable cherishing of those moments – a spirit especially poignant in her fanciful portraits of children, as well as her tender, sensitive mother-and-child portraits.

Rest assured this is not the stuff of greeting card sentimentality, though there is a great deal of sentiment evident. It is a guileless sentimentality, neither wishful nor saccharine, and sometimes with just a hint of latent wildness. For all of their “period look,” these images are classical immersions in something beyond a specific time, a certain place. Surely, though, not beyond our own cherishing.

Photo: “Tasha with Ribbon,” 1940s, by Nell Dorr. On view at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way E. in downtown Massillon, through February 27, 2011. Admission free. For hours and information, please visit or call
(330) 833 - 4061

No comments: