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Revealing fossil photos

A wonderful Norman Rockwell illustration from the mid-1950s suggests just how strange abstract-impressionism once must have seemed. It depicts a perplexed gent standing in front of a painting covered with mad scrawls and doodles - obviously Rockwell's tongue-in-cheek caricature of a Jackson Pollock.

Because the illustration appeared on the cover of the old Saturday Evening Post, there was no caption, nor need for one. It was a pure sight gag, and Rockwell could confidently assume the magazine's readers would put themselves in the place of his bewildered businessman, marveling at the incomprehensible turn taken by art's avant-garde.

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No such confusion is likely to arise for visitors to Ancient Microworlds, Giraud Foster and Norman Barker's beautiful show of fossil photographs at Galerie Francoise. These images look like abstract expressionist paintings - full of the colorful swirls, fractal etchings and mysterious, deep voids that by now have become as familiar as an old shoe.

The artists, both physicians, take as their subjects the tiny visual traces of prehistoric plants and animals deposited in stone and wood eons ago. They blow them up to monumental scale and present them as objects of pure visual delight. Here, whatever scientific value the photographs may have had is definitely secondary to their aesthetic appeal.

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The fossil photographs were published in book form in 2000 and exhibitions based on them have been touring museums of natural history around the country since then (a version of the show is also on view at the Natural History Museum in Washington through Sept. 15).

Abstract expressionism taught two generations of viewers to appreciate its non-representational pictorial language, and even in the 1950s and 1960s, photographers like Aaron Siskind and Minor White were attempting to transcribe it on film.

There's an argument that photography shouldn't look like painting, but those who make it have never convinced photographers to stop trying. From Cindy Sherman's postmodern parodies of 17th-century baroque portraits to Philip-Lorca diCorcia's staged, Hopperesque scenes of urban alienation, the urge to emulate painted imitations of reality seems inextinguishable.

We live in a media-saturated age in which every image seems destined to be endlessly recycled. Ancient Microworlds is recycled abstract expressionism, but none the less pleasing for all that. The microcosmos is infinitely rich, and some of these images approach a state of rapturous meditation on the unseen forces to which all existence must conform.

The show runs through July 10. The gallery is at 2360 W. Joppa Road in Lutherville. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-337-2787.

Baltimore Gallery

Robert Szabo's images of Western landscapes, on view at Baltimore Gallery in Greektown, look for all the world like 19th-century photography as practiced by artists such as Carleton Watkins or Timothy O'Sullivan.

In fact, the images are contemporary works pain- stakingly produced by re-creating the obsolete technical processes of a bygone era and applying them to modern scenes so that they look nearly identical to 150-year-old originals.

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Many of Szabo's photographs are beautiful, limned by the incredibly smooth tonal gradations of huge glass-plate negatives and antediluvian emulsions that have to be prepared only minutes before exposure and then developed immediately in a portable darkroom the photographer installed in his van.

Viewed in one light, Szabo's pictures are a kind of historical nostalgia for the heroic efforts of the medium's pioneers, who carted their bulky, fragile equipment in covered wagons across a hostile, unsettled land to bring back images of what America's future looked like.

That future, however, already has arrived; and with it has come a broader and even more urgent role for photography to play, part of which surely is to make us aware of where we're headed, and how we might get there.

The frontier is closed, the covered wagons are all gone. A photography that looks resolutely toward the past has little to teach us about how to face our future. These are pretty images, but utterly empty of meaning for today.

The gallery is at 519 Eastern Ave. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday noon to 4 p.m. Call 410-276-7966


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