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Picturing the Past

Art Review: “Silver Halides: New Photographs” by Diane Gabriel & Jordan Douglas, 215 College Artists’ Cooperative, Burlington. Through April 26.


Published April 15, 2009 at 6:53 a.m.

“Cowgirl, Cornwall, New York” by Diane Gabriel
  • “Cowgirl, Cornwall, New York” by Diane Gabriel

Photographs by Diane Gabriel and Jordan Douglas exemplify a famous quote by Ansel Adams: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Their dual show at Burlington’s 215 College Artists’ Cooperative, called simply “Silver Halides: New Photographs,” presents black-and-white photography made with the kind of attention to craftsmanship one usually associates with ceramics or printmaking. Douglas and Gabriel are skilled technicians in the darkroom, and such fluency complements the subjects of their images. Process has a major impact on the products of both.

In his artist’s statement, St. Michael’s College photography professor Douglas asks the rhetorical question, “Can we interpret several moments simultaneously?” His photographs seem to say, “Yes, we can.” Both he and Gabriel employ the silver-gelatin process to create a wide range of tonalities in their works. Douglas refers to his images as triptychs, even though they are single sheets, because he prints three consecutive frames to create rectangular images measuring 10 by 17.5 inches. Some are vertically oriented, others horizontal.

“This Sale” is a horizontal print composed of three shots of a weathered kerosene gas pump like those found on older farms. The word “kerosene” is flanked by two close-ups of the pump’s price dial. The minimal image focuses on three different type sizes and a few ambiguous shadows.

“Nichols Farm” is another Douglas image of a decaying rural past. Its vertically conjoined frames seem to capture details of a rusty truck or tractor. But the narrative is less important than the picture’s compositional elements. Each frame contains a circle: headlight above, flywheel in the center and tire below. Curves and arcs unify the three frames into an exploration of form. The resulting trio is also a fugue of light and shadows.

While Douglas’ pieces are crisp black and white, Gabriel tints her prints sepia by bathing them in tea. The artist is a real fan of the stuff; in her 2007 exhibition at this same gallery, she showed garments made of tea bags. They had the same brown translucence seen in her photographs.

Gabriel’s images were shot with a vintage Holga. The cheap, Chinese-made cameras with plastic lenses are quirky; each one comes with unique imperfections and light leaks that distinguish its pictures like a fingerprint. Gabriel’s 6.6-by-7-inch images are distorted vignettes with a 19th-century look to them. Like spirit photography, they’re mysterious and ethereal.

“Cowgirl, Cornwall, New York” is a wonderful composition of a little girl in a cow-patterned dress beneath a tree covered in blossoms. Gabriel’s image knits a continuous oval from the shapes on the girl and the blossoms, unifying the figure with her magical-seeming environment. The white dots of the blossoms and the small black patches on the dress seem to trade off being positive and negative space.

“Canyon de Chelly I” and “Canyon de Chelly II” are two photographs from the same 1998 negative — one lighter and one darker, each with its own tonal subtleties. All Gabriel’s pieces come from previously unprocessed rolls of film that she printed just this year — some were shot 15 years ago.

Gabriel writes in her artist’s statement, “Darkroom photography is a form of alchemy, encompassing both natural and transformational processes.” Particularly in the era of digital photography and Photoshop, solid darkroom technique can reveal the difference between a true photographer and someone who just generates images. By paying attention to — and mastering — their craft, both Gabriel and Douglas play with light and shadows to coax fleeting moments into permanence.