Dou­ble vi­sions

Pasatiempo - - Art - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

El­liott McDow­ell spe­cial­izes in forg­ing puz­zling and fas­ci­nat­ing pic­tures from dis­parate pho­to­graphic im­ages — birds and but­ter­flies, tapestries and labyrinths, trees, oceans, clouds, desert and for­est land­scapes, and an opera gown. The in­vi­ta­tions for his new show, El­liott McDow­ell: Mys­ti­cal Dream­scapes, open­ing Satur­day, Dec. 12, at An­drew Smith Gallery, fea­ture his com­pos­ite photo ti­tled Aria. A head­less man­nequin adorned with a re­splen­dent red gown stands against the bar­ren land­scape of Zabriskie Point in Death Val­ley Na­tional Park.

“The peo­ple at the Santa Fe Opera were very gra­cious to al­low me to pho­to­graph some of the cos­tumes,” said McDow­ell, who has prints in the show dat­ing from nearly a decade ago to a few months ago.

McDow­ell started out prac­tic­ing straight­for­ward, re­al­is­tic photography, but he came to be over­whelm­ingly in­spired by the com­bined-im­age print­ing of Jerry Uels­mann. In Grown To­gether, his skill with the straight­for­ward tech­nique is ev­i­dent in the por­trait of a weath­ered pair of tree trunks in the High Sier­ras. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of the work of Ansel Adams— but for the hu­man faces in the wood, a pair of tango dancers from Ar­gentina. “The rea­son Grown To­gether is in the show is that I have this clas­si­cal train­ing deep down in me,” McDow­ell said. “This is not far from where Ansel com­posed his fa­mous Jef­frey Pine [ Sen­tinel Dome]. I’ve had a long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with forests, and I have no­ticed the way trees grow to­gether and en­twine. I think it re­ally works with th­ese two dancers, es­pe­cially since I got the grain of the wood to go through the faces.

“I took a Yosemite work­shop with Ansel Adams in the early 1970s, and I met Jerry Uels­mann there. Ansel was very shar­ing, like a cook might be with his recipes. I learned a lot, in­clud­ing film-de­vel­op­ment times and a selenium-ton­ing for­mula, from him.”

McDow­ell laughed along with the other work­shop­pers when Uels­mann showed a print he had made of Half Dome (a Yosemite rock for­ma­tion fa­mously pho­tographed by Adams) with Adams’ face com­ing out of it.

Uels­mann em­ploys the tools of tra­di­tional photography — cam­era, film, dark­room— to make his sur­real com­pos­ite prints, which he builds us­ing up to seven en­larg­ers. McDow­ell works sim­i­larly but mostly with dig­i­tal-im­age­mak­ing tools. The process com­bines im­ages, of­ten from widely vary­ing sources and far-flung lo­cales, to con­struct vi­sion­ary pic­tures.

“Some­times I’ll take a pic­ture, and I will have that im­age, and I will think about it,” McDow­ell said. “It’s some­thing I like, and I put it on my [com­puter-mon­i­tor] desk­top. And as I con­tinue to pho­to­graph and gather other im­ages, I don’t un­der­stand how it hap­pens, but I see the com­pos­ite in my mind. A lot of times, if I can’t find any­thing in the present— say I need a stream or clouds — I go back to th­ese archives of slides.”

He has some good clouds on file. For Bon Voy­age, a sky full of dra­matic clouds and sun­beams stretches over a large boat on what ap­pears to be a small lake. It’s ac­tu­ally a bog at In­de­pen­dence Pass near Aspen, Colorado. The ship was

pho­tographed on Lake Ge­orge, New York. And he shot the clouds from the win­dow of a plane, over the Gulf of Mex­ico.

McDow­ell’s stu­dio on East Palace Av­enue holds mul­ti­ple film scan­ners, var­i­ous cam­eras and dig­i­tal equip­ment, and car­tons of slides. Dur­ing our visit, he pointed out one box of slides la­beled “Septem­ber 2002” and said, “That’s when the world of film came to a stop for me.”

He was build­ing up to that di­vorce for a long time. His Bali Por­traits, from the early 1990s, was one of his last se­ries shot and pre­sented in the tra­di­tional way. Shortly af­ter that, 15 years ago, he be­gan study­ing Pho­to­shop. His in­stru­ments of choice to­day are a Le­ica dig­i­tal cam­era and a Pana­sonic dig­i­tal cam­era that takes his Le­ica lenses.

McDow­ell took out a print of Jon and the Rain­bow, newly framed for the An­drew Smith exhibit. “I can’t ex­plain what’s hap­pen­ing,” he said. “The new cam­eras are so sharp. The ear­lier pho­to­com­pos­ites were lim­ited in the cap­ture of the dig­i­tal cam­era and also be­cause of the mix of dig­i­tal im­ages and film scans. That had a look that I like, but to­day you can do more, do things dif­fer­ently. I re­ally loved this pic­ture of this guy out there in the mid­dle of nowhere with his arms up, and a friend said it would be cool to have a rain­bow in there. Then I cre­ated that square he’s hold­ing, al­most like a mir­ror. It’s one of those things where if you do this long enough and you don’t give up, once in a while you have th­ese break­throughs that give you some­thing that’s bet­ter than you could imag­ine.

“I used to say that about black-and-white photography. I al­ways be­lieved there was some sort of mys­ti­cal force when you were un­der the dark cloth [nec­es­sary for tak­ing pic­tures with a view cam­era]. I have great re­spect for the medium. When we go through this act of tak­ing pho­to­graphs, it’s a mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, if you al­low that to hap­pen. You go out there, and it’s like un­seen forces can come to our aid. I re­ally do find it up­lift­ing, and it’s com­fort­ing in a way to know you’re sort of in touch with the un­seen world.”

One of McDow­ell’s fa­vorite books is Golf in the King­dom (1972) by Esalen In­sti­tute co-founder Michael Mur­phy. The pro­tag­o­nist is a young man, fresh out of col­lege, who de­ter­mines to go to In­dia to find his guru. An avid golfer, he stops in Scot­land on the way. His meet­ing there with a mys­te­ri­ous golf pro named Shivas Irons be­comes more im­por­tant than his even­tual so­journ in In­dia.

His im­age One With the Course shows a golfer who seems to be cov­ered in plant growth. “He’s so into it, he be­came the golf course,” the pho­tog­ra­pher said. The char­ac­ter in the pic­ture is ac­tu­ally a road­side top­i­ary fig­ure McDow­ell shot in Hous­ton. The land­scape around him is a com­pos­ite of im­ages from Scot­land and Napa, Cal­i­for­nia.

In his The Prophetic Pine, an old tree trunk holds a woody “face,” but it was ac­tu­ally pulled from a photo of a dif­fer­ent tree. The Prophetic Pine ap­pears on the cover of El­liott McDow­ell: Mys­ti­cal Dream­scapes, newly pub­lished by Art­book Press. Signed and num­bered copies of the lim­ited-edi­tion book are avail­able at An­drew Smith Gallery. In­cluded with each is an orig­i­nal signed print of Buji Bird.

“I think it’s a baby heron,” McDow­ell said of that im­age. “He was walk­ing down the beach at a place called Si­esta Key in Florida. I saw the mother first. She was quite beau­ti­ful, bounc­ing along the shore, both fly­ing and walk­ing, and this pre­cious lit­tle bird was fol­low­ing her.”

This is one of the McDow­ell im­ages that seem, af­ter the fact, to de­pend on serendip­ity or co­in­ci­dence. An­other is the gor­geous An­gel Oak. He had come upon the gi­ant old oak tree on a plan­ta­tion near Charleston, South Carolina, but was frus­trated by a driz­zling rain that par­tially ob­scured it. The suc­cess­ful shot came af­ter his de­par­ture flight was de­layed by more than six hours. He went back to the plan­ta­tion, caught the tree in all its gnarled, mossy glory, and also pho­tographed a white pea­cock that came strut­ting by. In the re­sult­ing luminous im­age, McDow­ell places the ven­er­a­ble tree within a ver­i­ta­ble halo of white pea­cock feathers. “And,” he said, “it only hap­pened be­cause Amer­i­can Air­lines screwed up.”

El­liott McDow­ell: An­gel Oak, Ep­son pig­ment print

Grown To­gether, Ep­son pig­ment print

The Prophetic Pine, Ep­son pig­ment print

Buji Bird, Ep­son pig­ment print

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