Searching for love in all the rural places

Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006

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Photos courtesy of Fraser Gallery
‘‘Near Eden, Marshall County, South Dakota, 2005”

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‘‘Near Campo de Criptana, Spain, 2004”

A brief moment of Zen. That’s the feeling elicited by photographer Maxwell MacKenzie’s big sky landscapes in the exhibit ‘‘Sky Lights” on view in Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery.

Mackenzie has spent the past 16 years searching for ‘‘bliss,” or something akin to it, in places like North Dakota and Minnesota. Taking serious shots of the sweeping plains dotted with long abandoned and now forgotten farm structures, he often places said structure squarely in the middle of the photograph surrounded by a swirling sky and uncut fields. In addition, the District-based artist is traveling beyond his childhood roots in Minnesota and including images of a Ventura County, Calif., boardwalk and stone ruins in Scotland.

MacKenzie admits his image making takes time. Once he has found a subject, he often must return six or seven times, waiting for an elusive cloud formation or perfect lighting. Using infrared film, he explains, ‘‘picks up the light, heat and organic glow.” The artist also takes full advantage of his Fuji panoramic camera’s 2-1⁄4- by 7-inch negatives that enable him to slow his shutter speed and grab every possible detail, ‘‘even catching the blur of the leaves in the trees.”

Clearly influenced by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Mackenzie finds ‘‘beauty in the mundane” — in granaries, a lone silo or a dilapidated barn drifting dangerously to one side. He refuses to photograph anything modern or what he perceives as ugly.

At first glance, some of his subject matter could be considered Americana quaint, but Mackenzie’s goal is to ‘‘distill the landscape to its essence and document some of what remains before all traces disappear and we have no reminders of what went before.”

The artist carefully edits the entire image on sight, not in the darkroom, not happy until every single element is on point. In turn, these familiar objects become sculptural, sometimes sitting or swaying in distinct and dreamy horizontal planes. Lighting is critical, with the artist shooting in the early morning and late afternoon to create strong shadows on the solitary objects.

Gallery owner Kate Fraser concedes that Mackenzie’s ‘‘celebratory art” is decidedly uncool in the context of New York City’s grunge art market.

‘‘The trend is big photos of urban decay,” Fraser says.

While contemporary photographers may be quick to ignore composition and to shoot ‘‘ugliness and a cacophony of stuff,” Mackenzie believes in staying true to his vision.

In terms of commerce, he must be doing something right, though. Since starting his professional relationship with Fraser Gallery some six years ago, ‘‘hundreds of his images” have been sold, he notes.

It took the 1990 recession for this sought-after commercial photographer specializing in architecture to begin making fine art. With no work and few nibbles, he took the family West to explore the region of Western Minnesota where he spent summers at his grandparents’ home. Soon the entire family was tramping through vast grasslands while Mackenzie searched for the perfect shot. His wife, artist Rebecca Cross, painted some and helped their two sons find mega-sized grasshoppers. This pristine paradise might be pretty, but it’s also teeming with every conceivable bug — often extra large in size. Mackenzie soon learned that his obsession required considerable patience, especially when the kids, tired of all the waiting and watching, begged to leave.

For many years, Mackenzie went it alone, renting a car and staying in motels. Once it took him four days before he found ‘‘anything good.” Seeing something he might want to shoot in the distance also requires figuring out how to get even near said spot. Without roads, he literally must carry his equipment on his back. Even then, it’s not a couple of snaps and he’s out of there. He recalls going back to the same spot six times since the ‘‘clouds weren’t quite right.” But when he falls in love with a location, he often returns to the same spot year after year.

MacKenzie confesses that the solitary travel sometimes makes him ‘‘lonely and randy,” and he jokes about looking for the Meryl Streep character in ‘‘The Bridges of Madison County.” Instead, the 54-year-old found a pick-me-up in the form of a BMW motorcycle equipped with big cases on each side that hold his gear.

But times are quickly changing in this photo business, with computers and digital equipment taking over. The film Mackenzie likes to use isn’t being manufactured anymore. Now he isn’t sure when or if he will continue making celebratory art. At least, that’s what he’s saying now. Get him a new and improved digital camera and doubtless, he’ll be on the road again — regardless of the big bugs.

‘‘Sky Light,” photographs by Maxwell MacKenzie, is on view through Jan. 6 in the Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Gallery, Suite E, Bethesda. Call 301-718-9651 or visit