Perhaps it's a sign of the times. Photography has not only been well represented in local galleries lately but much of what we have seen has been surprisingly innovative. Not content with the usual super-sized prints that are the stock in trade of contemporary art photography, local venues currently offer an unusual range of alternative processes. The Newcomb Gallery's excellent Image Wrought expo (reviewed last week) provides a sweeping historical survey of photographic techniques over the past century or so, and now the Ogden Museum has given us its own take on alternative approaches with a pair of shows that are classics in their own right. Digital imagery has revolutionized the photographic medium in ways that can only be called sweeping, democratizing creativity while rendering many of our favorite cameras obsolete and making some of the most lovely photographic papers extinct. It's been an exciting, if bittersweet, transition. The Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor exhibitions in adjacent chambers at the Ogden in many ways epitomize the old and new technologies.
Taylor has come to personify what some call the Photoshop generation of illustrators who use digital programs to actualize their own dreamlike personal narratives, whimsical little vistas that pose visual paradoxes in much the way artists such as Rene Magritte used paint to make mysterious dream worlds visible. A former still-life photographer and spouse of traditional darkroom magician Jerry Uelsmann, Taylor began working with digital images in 1996 aided by a versatile scanner, a hyperactive imagination and ready access to a seemingly endless assortment of props and antique photographs. If some of her early efforts seemed a little derivative " of Uelsmann or Photoshop's grab bag of gimmicks " she eventually established her own clear identity in works such as Girl in a Bee Dress that meld traditional female identity issues with a delicate visual poetry. Here a swarm of bees has come to the rescue of a disoriented maiden holding a flower, covering her nakedness with a honeybee colony in the form of a sundress.
Uelsmann, the senior partner in the Taylor-Uelsmann marriage, has spent most of his life pioneering his own elaborate photomontages the old analog way, combining large multiple negatives in elaborate darkrooms with intricate devices and chemicals. In this, he is the grand maestro de la mode, the monarch of seamless photomontage. Sometimes his technical brilliance almost gets the better of him in mind-boggling works that look like he did them just to prove that he could, but at his best, he's a true photographic poet. To do it the old way is a dauntingly labor intensive process, and no words will suffice to describe some of his results. We rarely see sizeable pairings of Uelsmann and Taylor's work, so this is a rare expo that no photomontage aficionado should miss.
In the realm of new uses for old processes, Ellen Susan's collodion photographs of soldiers at the Photo Alliance Gallery are truly striking. That they can be seen at the same time and in the same town as Deborah Luster's tintypes of Louisiana prisoners at the Newcomb Gallery is grandly serendipitous. Employing the same laborious process made famous by the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, Ellen Susan applies a collodion silver solution to glass plates and then has modern warriors sit perfectly still for portraits that can take several seconds to record. The sitting becomes a meditation or a discipline for the subject, and an act of skilled speculation for a photographer all too aware of what can go wrong, and often does. Her most successful portraits have that haunting quality of souls staring at us from beyond time and space, reminding us of the precarious mortality of men and women at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
- Maggie Taylor's digital photomontage Girl in a Bee Dress melds notions of feminine vulnerability with a delicate visual poetry.