There are two art shows in The City right now showcasing alternative processes in landscape photography. One is Meghann Riepenhoff’s “Ice” at Haines Gallery, and the other is “Elemental Exposures” at the University of San Francisco’s Thacher Gallery, featuring the work of Kristiana Chan, Binh Danh, Bessma Khalaf and Dionne Lee.
The tradition of landscape photography is long-standing, ranging stylistically from the work of seminal California photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) to the 1975 group exhibition “New Topographics,” which marked a defining moment: the recognition that the natural landscape has been disrupted by booming infrastructure. The pieces in “Ice” and “Elemental Exposures” represent a trend in contemporary photography focused on experimentation with the process itself, to arrive at the message through more visceral means.
Riepenhoff’s cyanotype photographs of ice are contact prints, made by submerging or placing paper treated with photo-sensitive emulsion directly in or on ice, the product being an image of the natural phenomenon the naked eye could never see. In the finished prints, we can see the whorls of the frozen water’s surface and interior, as well as places where the cold appears to have burned away the photo emulsion. Some of the prints even hold grains of dirt.
Chan’s “Bodies of Water,” 2019, is a grid of 49 cyanotypes created using a process of submersion similar to Riepenhoff’s. For each print, Chan exposed treated paper to sunlight, creating photogram images of fish netting in patterns evocative of waves, then developing the prints in the ocean. The wall-sized installation looks like the refracted surface of a body of water, while the fact that these waterlike images are actually pictures of netting reminds us that human interference with nature lurks just below the surface of beauty.
Lee’s “Netting,” 2019, is a collage of gelatin silver prints with graphite markings, a small, visually explosive piece that, like Chan’s grid, abstracts the titular subject. “Fleet,” 2019, a series of six 8-by-10-inch gelatin silver prints featuring abstracted reproductions of photographs from the pages of a sailing manual, raises further thoughts about human interaction with, and uses for, the sea — from fishing to the transatlantic slave trade.
Danh’s daguerreotypes, ranging from 9 inches by 11 inches to about 17 inches by 15 inches, are highly reflective surfaces that capture both the intimately detailed landscape as well as the viewer’s own reflection. The pictures, particularly the ones made in Yosemite — “Yosemite Falls,” 2014, is a sterling example — are reminiscent of Adams’ Yosemite pictures.
Khalaf’s “Burnout (Hoodoos)” is perhaps the strongest example of the artist’s signature technique of rephotographing pictures of landscapes from magazines and travel guides in black and white as they burn. The result appears to be a landscape in atrophy, corroding, exploding or cut away to reveal the layers of dirt below the surface of the earth. The visual trick is so convincing it makes believable natural disasters of innocuous magazine pictures, insinuating that disaster is just below the patina of perceived beauty.
None of these works make explicitly environmentalist statements, but the theme is present in relief, similar to the photographic techniques themselves: indirect representations achieved through forms of direct contact. These topographies are concerned with a kind of mapping that emphasizes moments of human touch. It’s the brevity of it all that is the real underlying statement: If we want the landscape itself to outlast these photographs, we’ll have to act to preserve it. Otherwise, it’s all fleeting.
“Ice” is on view at Haines Gallery, 49 Geary St #540, S.F., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Thursday–Saturday, through Jan. 29. “Elemental Exposures” is on view at the Thacher Gallery at University of San Francisco, noon–6 p.m. daily through Feb. 20.