Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007

On View: Singing of the land at Fraser Gallery

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Courtesy of the artist
Anna Druzcz’s ‘‘In Vitro Complex No. III” is a digital composite photograph. With its large size and panoramic sweep, it resembles a still from a film about aliens invading the land.
‘‘Land,” a group exhibition of contemporary landscape photography at Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, features exceptionally high-quality work by Maxwell MacKenzie and Lee Goodwin, among the top regional names in the field. The show also presents a group of photos by established Canadian photographer Lawrence Hislop, two remarkable works by emerging artist Anna Druzcz and a rare group of prints by the late Mark Evan Thomas.

Landscape photography is quintessentially American. It takes its character from landscape painting, which became the American answer to European art during the 19th century. The extent, variety and breathtaking beauty of the American landscape made up for the lack of castles and Roman ruins. Particularly appealing was its wildness, the uninhabited vastness that still characterized most of the continent. During the last third or so of the 19th century, a hardy group of American photographers took pictures of the mountains, lakes and deserts of the unsettled West. These men were, to varying degrees, explorers and adventurers, many of whom accompanied government land surveys under extremely difficult conditions. This was a generation of pioneers like William Henry Jackson, whose photos inspired some of Thomas Moran’s great paintings that would, in turn, eventually move Congress to create the National Park system.

The heirs of that generation were the great landscape photographers of the early and mid-20th century, like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Their work established a recognizable set of formal standards in pictures of this kind that continues to have enormous authority. What is perhaps most striking about the work at Fraser is the way it shows the continuation of both the philosophy and photographic aesthetic of a Weston or an Adams in the contemporary period, as well as departures from that heritage, particularly in the possibilities offered by new technology.

Among those who fall into the first category are the photos of Hislop, Goodwin and Thomas. Hislop’s four lightjet prints of landscapes with snow explore a full range of grayscale tones in compositions that tend to hold the depth of field, that is, a sharpness of focus into the distance obtained by a very slow shutter speed. I particularly liked his ‘‘Lynn River,” where the movement of water through the rocks is perceptible and the unusual perspective from bottom up gives a sense of rushing forward. His ‘‘Pier with Snow” reminds me of Weston’s early compositions in which a pristine formal integrity is primary, even over subject matter.

Goodwin’s gelatin silver prints of scenes around the Potomac are superb in both their delicate juxtaposition of land and water, and their complete control of the tonal range. Like the paintings of the 19th century Luminists, who focused on aspects of the mid-Atlantic coast, Goodwin’s photos make what may be familiar to us seem luminous and even numinous. That numinous quality — a sense of divine presence in the land — has been an important aspect of American landscape art in general. Goodwin’s ‘‘Bryce Canyon, Trees and Rocks,” a study of tower rocks in Utah, recalls Adams’ photos of Death Valley of the 1940s.

Thomas, a local artist who passed away last December while his work was being exhibited for the first time in the BlackRock Center in Germantown, was a master of both composition and light effects. His work literally rivals Adams’ in its intensely controlled formal arrangements — in an abstract sense as well as in an intimacy with the landscape that communicates an extreme sensibility to it. A photo like ‘‘Rock Wall, Death Valley” shows Thomas’ connection to Adams’ example. Yet, there’s a warmth that speaks of journeying that is totally individual in these pictures. There are also photos of eastern parts, like ‘‘Coastal Road, GA,” which bring that sensibility to a denser, greener place — all in rich black and white tones.

On the other side, MacKenzie’s color aerial photos of the heartland are of a different genre. Echoing his 19th century predecessors, he took these pictures from a dangerously low and slow-flying ultra-light aircraft with a kite-like sail above it. What they reveal is an unseen landscape, a new face of America in its farmland. The abstract values he found while lilting and dipping with his camera are a revelation. A work like ‘‘Clitherall Township” captures a farmer’s field that, from the air, looks more like a woven tapestry. Or the tractor marks across a green plain in ‘‘Amor Township” appear as an unexpected, but attractive, abstract drawing.

Druzcz’s work is unusual in every way. Her approach is totally new, both aesthetically and technically, to landscape photography. She has invented her landscapes and composed them digitally of multiple images taken from the real world. Like many young people, Druzcz is interested in documenting man’s impact on the environment. With some allusion to film, her outsized scenes provoke viewer response. Of the two at Fraser, ‘‘In Vitro Complex No. III” is perhaps the more disturbing because it seems the more plausible. Made with digital layers and much manipulated, the work seems to photograph a very different America — one that is far from divine presence and evinces a sense of evil.