"New England Survey": The title could be a rejected Yankee Magazine headline (too flat, too traditional). The organizing principle seems a bit fusty, too: a selection of landscapes from one photographer each for all six New England states. But the exhibition, which runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through May 11, reminds us that what matters with photographs isn't words or concepts. It's the images themselves.
In curating the show, the PRC's Leslie K. Brown has construed landscape narrowly. The settings of the 26 photographs are all rural and highly scenic. No people are visible, even if every once in a while their handiwork is (houses, stone walls, a trailer). At first glance, the pictures might seem a little too scenic. Handsome is as handsome does, but handsomeness alone holds only so much interest. There's an aesthetic tipping point where beauty starts to flirt with vacancy, where even the biggest photographs can begin - frame and all - to resem ble picture postcards.
A closer look, though, reveals the depth Brown has mined within that narrowness. There's much more to these pictures than their very considerable attractiveness. If these are picture postcards, they're sent from places frequented by philosophers as well as tourists. "New England Survey" is as much about identity as place - or, rather, place as identity. The show poses an unanswerable question: When and how does where become who? Brown quotes the poet Robert Francis to excellent effect in the show's introduction. "My outer world and inner make a pair," he wrote in his poem "New England Mind," ". . .would I be New England anywhere?"
Barbara Bosworth, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art + Design, admits to being "obsessed with the physical world." The three color photographs from her series "Meadow, Carlisle, Massachusetts" are almost picture-window big (40 inches by 50 inches), but the keenest-eyed looker would be hard pressed to find such clarity and detail looking through even the clearest window. Her images are like middle-linebacker ballerinas: simultaneous marvels of muscular scale and exquisite delicacy. The wondrous specificity Bosworth obtains with her view camera not only allows her to capture a rapturous vision of nature, it makes that vision seem all-encompassing.
Tanja Alexia Hollander also has a trio of large color photographs, of Maine marshes. At 30 inches by 30 inches, they're not quite as big as Bosworth's. They're also, for lack of a better word, much quicker. Where Bosworth's view camera requires a long exposure, Hollander practices a "snapshot aesthetic" (her words). Hollander's tools, she writes in an artistic statement, are "a hand-held camera and high-speed film with the focus on infinity." That focus setting is figurative as well as literal. At the horizon point of each of these three pictures water-filled land meets vapor-filled sky, and a sense of the infinite hovers, as if opening on to other worlds. (Lest we forget, the name of the foremost literary expression of this region is Transcendentalism.)
Paul Taylor works near his home on New Hampshire's Ashuelot River. He and Janet L. Pritchard, who teaches at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, employ technical means to give a sense of temporal dislocation. (Just because a show is about place doesn't mean it can't be about time, too.) They combine anachronistic processes so that their images resemble 19th-century photographs, without, of course, being 19th-century photographs. He uses wet plate collodion, as photographers did in Victorian times, which he then prints, toned and stained, as a silver gelatin print. She shoots on Polaroid film, then scans, tints, and prints the results on rag paper. Their photographs, in effect, stand outside of time.
Time also concerns Jonathan Sharlin, who lives in Providence. He presents a pair of big pictures of a tiny state: diptychs, each measuring 28 inches by 64 inches, from his "Rhode Island Landscapes" series. Sharlin enjoys walking, and these diptychs offer, as he puts it, "a tangible record of an intangible experience." He'll shoot the same walk-encountered site from two or more perspectives, thus creating a panorama that conveys motion in space as well as time. Think of them as a kind of striding hybrid between motion picture and still.
"New England Survey" has a visual pun running throughout it. Here we are looking at images of America's smallest region, and almost all of them are so large. The one exception is the selection of 10 photographs, each 15 inches square, from Thad Russell's "Light and Long Shadows" series. Taken on his parents' homestead in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, they convey a sense of domesticity, even intimacy, not found in the other photographers' work. We get a sense of life lived not just outside four walls, but within them, too.
Right now is a very good time hereabouts for landscape photography, with "Jem Southam: Upton Pyne" at Wellesley College's Davis Museum and Laura McPhee's "Two Years Later" at the Bernard Toale Gallery, in the South End. They're worth noting on your mental map - or perhaps on one of the maps on a wall at the back of the PRC. There are also pins and slips of paper supplied. Visitors are urged to note on the maps some place in New England that has special meaning for them. Interactivity doesn't get any more low-tech, or charming, than this.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.