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