Photography’s hot at Fraser’s competition show

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

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photos courtesy of fraser gallery
A sense of the mystery narrative informs David Ashman’s strongly composed ‘‘Cathedral Street No. 3” (above). A stunning example of the tonal variety of gelatin silver prints (below), Lee Goodwin’s ‘‘Rocks and Water, Great Falls” makes the familiar seem unfamiliar.

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The fourth annual Bethesda International Photography Competition coincided with the publication of a national art magazine cover that features the headline ‘‘Photography: What’s Hot” — both a question and a statement.

What is hot in photography these days? Art photography is more popular than ever. Collectors are willing to spend large sums, more than a million dollars in a recent auction, on individual prints. A look at the work of the competition winners now at the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda also indicates that traditional photography is still healthy — despite Kodak’s 2005 announcement that it would no longer manufacture black and white printing papers. Indeed, it looks like this industrial benchmark is neither spelling the demise of traditional photography nor rendering old-fashioned the look of black and white prints made from film negatives. Much to the contrary, while many have been saying that photography’s future is not in the darkroom, traditional black and white prints still dominate the market for collectors who balk at digital prints of any kind. Yet, although the deep tonal look of a gelatin silver print currently cannot be matched digitally, digital results do keep getting more interesting.

However you look at it, while the pendulum of taste is always swinging, it seems that older modernist aesthetics are again on the rise — away from the big, cool, digitally enhanced color prints of the past decade, and reaffirming something fundamental in traditional photography that refuses to lose its appeal.

By and large, intimate, even poignant images, presented in smallish black and white prints, dominate the Fraser exhibit. Owner⁄curator Catriona Fraser’s selection of work — from nearly 400 national and international submissions — reflects her stated preference for this aesthetic, and for traditional over digital prints. Still, the latter are strongly represented here. In fact, one of my favorites is Kerry Stuart Coppin’s ‘‘Smoke on the Water, St. Louis, Senegal,” a lightly sepia-toned digital print that has the look of an early 1900s documentary photograph. The grainy tone, often the biggest issue with digital, serves this artist well, ironically, to reproduce the effect of old printing techniques.

David Ashman’s front steps and doorway in ‘‘Cathedral Street, No. 3” and Eleanor Owen Kerr’s view of a bayou in ‘‘Before the Storm: New Orleans” show that crisp depth of tone, especially in the blacks, that can be achieved only with the black and white gelatin silver print technique. Both these works, with their topographical approach, are in sync with the rising taste for images that not only have that kind of depth, but also achieve a sort of intimacy without seeming staged.

Among the most indelible images in the show is Prescott Lassman’s ‘‘Girl with Roaches,” featuring the head and torso of a 4- or 5-year-old girl, apparently lying on the grass looking out at the viewer with a contented smile. Two enormous roaches are crawling over her body. Their size suggests they may have been superimposed on the image, but the effect is totally convincing.

Lassman is known for his documentary approach to intimate subject matter, as well as for penetrating analyses of family dynamics. The black and white gelatin silver print is attractive and disturbing at the same time, a bold combination of the startling and the repulsive.

Two fascinating traditional black and white photos represent Gaithersburg photographer Aleksei Pechnikov. Pechnikov aims for a sense of the mystery narrative, with long exposures of moving subjects at night, and interesting negative manipulations. ‘‘The Swing,” his photo of a girl whose movement in a lit playground at night evokes a ghostly visitor, and the even more compelling ‘‘Bridge,” with half-seen figures in a strange dark environment, have a cinematic feel, like stills from a movie.

The more interesting digital works include two small pigment prints (meaning they won’t fade, as digital prints have often done) by David Myers (Second Prize) of an emaciated nude model, just barely seen in the half light. The two pieces by Adriana Echavarria (First Prize) are evocative and sensitive, while the color print by Sandi Croan (‘‘UMS”) has the fresh look of a watercolor.

Overall, however, the best work is in the traditional prints. Jesse Mechling’s cibachrome ‘‘Frozen,” with its marked depth of field and luscious color, beats any of the show’s digital color prints — particularly staged works like Victoria Restrepo’s ‘‘Bouquet with Tulips in a Niche” that, tiresomely, mimics the effect of a hyperrealist painting. Mary T. Vogel’s striking ‘‘Old Coats in the Attic” is a striking image. Finally, the topographical photos of Lee Goodwin, winner of ‘‘Best in Show,” are both lyrical and unabashedly beautiful. In ‘‘Lock 7 in Fog,” the atmospheric effects produce perfectly graded tones of soft gray against the dark forms of the lock in the foreground. Goodwin’s exquisitely composed ‘‘Rocks and Water, Great Falls” is arguably the gem of the entire exhibit. The sharp edges and the nuanced tonality in this photo of the Potomac’s rocks make them seem those of a far-off country, dreamlike and yet intensely present.