Paul Taylor, Themes and Variations, and Susan kae Grant, Night Journey at The Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography

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Susan kae Grant, Night Journey: Installation View (click on image for gallery)
Susan kae Grant, Night Journey: Installation View (click on image for gallery)

Paul Taylor, Themes and Variations, and Susan kae Grant, Night Journey
at The Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography, 85 Avenue A,Turners Falls, MA 01376
(413) 863-0009; Open Thursday through Sunday, 1 p. m. to 5 p. m.; Closes March 16, 2008. Admission free.

The Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography has expanded. It now boasts two state-of-the-art galleries, each in separate buildings, which it is now using to host two one-person shows, one a retrospective of Paul Taylor’simpressive photographic work, and the other a specific project by Texas photographer Susan kae Grant. Both exhibitions were inaugurated by slide lectures by the artists, making for a full and extremely stimulating evening. These were held at the equally impressive Hallmark Institute of Photography, which specializes in commercial photography and the business of photography, but, as this evening showed, it provides students with a constant flow of inspiration from the very best fine art photography. The present exhibitions are particularly sophisticated examples of this. As Paul Turnbull, the executive director and curator of the HMCP, pointedly asked the students at several points in the evening, “Are you making photographs, or are you taking pictures?” hence the lectures contained more technical considerations than those addressed to the general public. All the better.

Paul Taylor, Connecticut River Landscape (click on image for gallery)
Paul Taylor, Connecticut River Landscape (click on image for gallery)

Mr. Taylor’s exhibition, which is called Themes and Variations, is for the most part an expanded version of the exhibition I reviewed in November 2007, and I shall refer the reader to that page for a basic discussion of the photographs, their technique, and their exotic subject-matter, and here for a selection of the photographs. The Hallmark Museum, however, was able to show more work and to display it much more effectively. Now, the most important Cappadocian scenes are shown together as a coherent group. My only complaint would be the display of Taylor’s remarkable photogravures of markings made on cave walls by Byzantine monks. Their installation on piers in the center of the gallery with benches between them, preventing a clear view of some, slights their importance. Otherwise the display is splendid. The Hallmark also included minuscule ambrotypes of nude figures, which are very beautiful. Anyone who saw the show in Brattleboro will most definitely find it worthwhile to come to Turner’s Falls for a second look.

In Taylor’s refreshingly modest and witty presentation, I was surprised to learn that his photographic work, at least what he has chosen to display, is of relatively recent origin. However, he did show us some powerful photographs of Indian markings in the Southwest, which he made in 1986, just after graduating from RISD. These were not included in the exhibition. I can understand why, since there was a gap of almost 15 years between them and the work on display. A local photography professor advised him on how to locate Indian markings from relief maps, quite a fascinating scouting method, but hardly as unusual as the method he now employs, map dowsing. I fully appreciate the difficulties a landscape photographer experiences in finding subjects. As magnificent as our region is, that doesn’t help the photographer who wants to go beyond calendar photography. I plan to study the science at my earliest opportunity. In any case, I learned that he didn’t have to travel far to find his haunting views of the Connecticut River. Cappadocia became accessible to him through the generosity of a patron. if you have read travel articles about this region, you’ll have doubtless seen photos of hang gliders, and other touristic entertainments in intensely colored, but totally vapid newspaper illustrations. Paul Taylor’s eye and imagination are able to elicit a magic which has surely not vanished from this ancient landscape. It is only buried under the activities of modern visitors. It took repeated close examination for me to discover a row of satellite dishes in an image which seems to come not so much from the age of Watkins or Brady, as from some antediluvian proto-photography. Taylor achieves this by artistically exploiting the inherent imperfections of the medium.

Paul Taylor, as I mentioned in my earlier review, has been long established as one of the finest practitioners of the complex and difficult process of photogravure, but it looks as if Paul Taylor the photographer will be a very busy man from now on, with a spring exhibition planned for Reeves Contemporaryin New York.

Susan kae Grant, MFA in Photography and Book Arts from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has been a Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Texas Woman’s University for many years. Ms. Grant has also lectured internationally at museums and galleries, as well as teaching at the International Center for Photography, New York. The Society for Photographic Education has twice presented her with awards for teaching excellence, as has The Santa Fe Center for Photography. She has exhibited her photographic work in Canada, Europe, Australia, Africa and Japan, in addition to many venues in the U.S. She was recently honored with a thirty-year retrospective exhibition in Dallas, Texas. Her work may be found in many collections including: J. Paul Getty Museum, New York Public Library, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, George Eastman House and The Victoria and Albert Museum National Library. She resides and maintains her studio in Dallas, Texas.

Ms. Grant’s exhibition, Night Journey, inaugurating the Hallmark’s new galleries, is devoted to this single project. In the first space we enter from the street, large prints of individual images from the project are on view—all shadows cast against a white backdrop, and all haunting in themselves. She would have had a powerful exhibition with these alone, but the project itself is installed in a second gallery at the end. Here the images are printed on sheer, semi-transparent sheets of synthetic chiffon, hung within the dark-walled L-shaped space at particular angles to one another, so that they suggest the effect of a maze. As we wander through the shadows we hear Susan’s voice, recorded in a loop, whispering fragments of her dream reports. Illuminated both from the front and the back, the chiffon hangings allow us to look through to others behind them, populating the space with shadowy figures who appear to move as the visitor moves through the maze. Even a step or two creates a different vision, evoking a vivid feeling of not merely a constructed vision of dreams, but of actually of living in a dream world populated with the ghosts of memories and feelings, which seem somehow to be shared with the viewer, as if the dreams were our own as well as Susan’s. The experience is disorientating and disturbing, even implicitly threatening, but always beautiful, and therefore benign. This is only appropriate to the artist’s intention. She is not a Joel Peter Witkin.

As Grant explained in her straightforward and unpretentious talk, the images were made on black and white sheet film in a studio camera, which Grant never moves, once she has embarked on the long process of setting up her compositions against the white backdrop. This can take three to four months. The negatives are then scanned and printed on whatever medium is called for. She creates the installation with small prototypes of the prints set into bases, which can be moved around experimentally. But this was the least of it. The amount of planning and organization behind the actual photography would seem enough to produce a three-hour Hollywood epic. Susan’s project began with research into the nature of dreaming. In order to capture a record of her own dreaming life, she entered into a collaboration with John Herman, Ph.D., at the sleep research laboratory of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. To access unconscious visual memory, Grant used herself as subject and was digitally monitored and awakened from REM sleep and then interrogated by trained technicians, who taped her reports. In general her impression was that dream life is much like “real” life, except for the fact that we can do things we couldn’t physically accomplish, for example, flying. (On the basis of her photographs, I should say that any sense of guilt is either absent or greatly mitigated by a pervasive feeling of wonder.) Grant used these tapes as inspiration to create the imagery for the series, but not without having them transcribed. Then, after allowing her dream experience to mature in her memory, she painstakingly worked through the transcripts and combined individual notes to create the effect of dreaming, rather than an illustration of one particular dream. These she dramatized in her studio, photographing the shadows of models and the objects she arranged around them. She also re-recorded her dream reports for the best aural effect. As impressive as this effort may seem there is no hint of compulsiveness in her work. Grant’s photographs, taken either as individual framed prints or together as an installation are fluid and poetic. Night Images is a powerful exhibition, full of discoveries, some uncomfortable, even painful, as well as challenges to our sense of reality and identity. It merits, even demands, repeated visits alone, at times when the galleries are empty.

Paul Turnbull and his staff deserve an accolade, not only on their splendid facility and on their installation, but on the inspiration to juxtapose the work of Susan kae Grant and Paul Taylor, two brilliant photographers who have had the dedication to master and execute the difficult and laborious processes they have chosen for their work.

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