Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Instruments of Revelation

Instruments of Revelation
By Tom Wachunas

“Some photographers take reality…and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.”
- Ansel Adams –

I recently eavesdropped on part of a conversation between several people discussing the efficacy of photography as fine art. They all seemed to agree that photography was a less “challenging” and “exciting” (those were their actual words) method for making “realistic” art than was painting or drawing. Examples of both Renaissance and modern painting masters were cited, including photorealistic (a.k.a. ‘Superrealism’) paintings by Chuck Close and Richard Estes. And there were several other comments about the admirable discipline it takes to skillfully render, in paint, something that’s so amazing in its fidelity to visible reality that it looks, interestingly enough…like a photograph. And well, duhh, ANYONE can take a picture of a sunset with a camera, they agreed, but it takes a “true artist” to make it convincingly like the real thing with a paintbrush.

Something told me I would be hard pressed to find any Jackson Pollock fans in this gathering. More to the point, I wondered if they had ever spent much time looking at the work of photographers such as Edward Steichen, Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, to name just a few historic champions of the medium. Turns out they hadn’t. As it was, I entered the discussion only long enough to mutter my disagreement, gently suggest that they were misinformed, and thank them for prompting what you are now reading.

Over the years I have encountered, to varying degrees, similar reluctance to regard photography as a “high art” form, as if it were an under-appreciated, perhaps even boring stepchild of true art. There are many reasons for this. Whether despite or because of postmodernist pluralism in matters of aesthetics, some still hold the reactionary view that the prime directive of two-dimensional art should be the faithful, albeit inspiring representation of the familiar, physical world. Entrenched conservatism, to be sure. Yet ironically, there is often folded into that viewpoint an accompanying, simplistic notion of photography being somehow too easy, unoriginal, ordinary. Point, click, and presto! - a picture.

Our world is inundated, indeed overwhelmed by instantly accessible visual information delivered via photographs. Rest assured I am aware that most people operating a camera are not artists as such (or shouldn’t claim to be) and are not setting out to make fine art, even as they may wow us with gee-whiz photo shop trickery. Still, one result of this ubiquitous plethora of pictorial data is that we can easily become desensitized and otherwise asleep in our ability to recognize (or even care?) what makes a great photograph and yes, great visual art. Like it or not, we have succeeded in designing and implementing a marvelous system for looking at too many pictures too fast… for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. It’s increasingly difficult to separate the real gems from the costume jewelry.

Need a wake-up call? First, slow down. Then consider your time as well-spent in seeing the current exhibition of photographs, called “As I See It,” by Steve Ohman at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton. It’s a remarkably eclectic collection of 31 images, the majority of which are black-and-white. That alone places these pictures firmly in what can only be called a noble tradition that I hope never becomes obsolete. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, physical realities formalized in gradations of black to white - presented with the disciplined, masterful eye for the intricacies of light and texture that we see here - can be incomparably pure and powerful documents of life. Ohman’s landscapes in particular are delightfully memorable for their thoughtful formal composition as well as their distinctly poetic sensibility.

In Ohman’s hands, the camera, not unlike the painter’s brush, becomes a vehicle for translating the often seen and commonplace into the newly framed and revealed. Likewise, his photographs are sublime windows on the sheer intrigue and mesmerizing pleasure to be found in the very act of careful looking. In “taking pictures,” he gives back enthralling records of compelling earthly dramas.

Photo, courtesy Steve Ohman and curator Elizabeth Blakemore: “In the Distance” by Steve Ohman. On view THROUGH DECEMBER 11, at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. Viewing hours 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday – Thursday / 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Friday / 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday / 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday

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