Photos of landscapes with multiple meanings at the Haines and Thacher galleries

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There are currently two art exhibits in San Francisco that showcase alternative processes in landscape photography. One is “Ice” by Meghan Riepenhoff at the Haines Gallery, and the other is “Elemental Exposures” at the University of San Francisco’s Thacher Gallery, featuring work by Kristiana Chan, Binh Danh, Bessma Khalaf and Dionne Lee.

The tradition of landscape photography is ancient, ranging stylistically from the work of founding Californian photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) to the 1975 exhibition “New Topographics”, which marked a watershed moment: the recognition that the natural landscape has been disrupted by the Infrastructure explosion. The pieces of “Ice” and “Elemental Exposures” represent a trend in contemporary photography focused on experimenting with the process itself, to arrive at the message through more visceral means.

Riepenhoff’s cyanotype ice photographs are contact prints, made by immersing or placing paper treated with a photosensitive emulsion directly in or on ice, the product being an image of the natural phenomenon that the naked eye could never see. In the finished prints, you can see the swirls of the surface and interior of the frozen water, as well as the places where the cold seems to have burned off the photo emulsion. Some of the prints even contain specks of dirt.

Chan’s 2019 “Bodies of Water” is a grid of 49 cyanotypes created using a submersion process reminiscent of Riepenhoff. For each print, Chan exposed treated paper to sunlight, creating photogram images of fishing nets, in wave-like patterns, then developing the prints in the ocean. The wall-sized installation resembles the refracted surface of a body of water, while the fact that these water-like images are actually images of nets reminds us that human interference with nature hides just below the surface of beauty.

Lee’s ‘Netting’, 2019, is a collage of gelatin silver prints with graphite marks, a visually explosive little piece that, like Chan’s grid, abstracts from the titular subject. “Flotte”, 2019, a series of six 8″ by 10″ gelatin silver prints featuring abstract reproductions of photographs from the pages of a sailing manual, raises new thoughts about human interaction with the sea and its uses, from fishing to the transatlantic slave trade.

Binh Danh, Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park, daguerreotype, 12.75” x 14.5”, 2016, at Thacher Gallery, University of San Francisco. (Courtesy of Thacher Gallery)

Danh’s daguerreotypes range from 9″ by 11″ to approximately 17″ by 15″, highly reflective surfaces that capture both the intricately detailed landscape as well as the viewer’s own reflection. The images, especially those taken in Yosemite, of which “Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park”, 2016, is a vivid example, are reminiscent of Adams’ images in Yosemite.

Khalaf’s “Burnout (Hoodoos)” is perhaps the most striking example of the artist’s signature technique of rephotographing landscape images from magazines and travel guides in black and white as they burn. The result appears to be a landscape atrophied, corroded, exploding or cutting away to reveal the layers of dirt beneath the earth’s surface. The visual trick is so compelling that it makes the natural disasters of innocuous magazine images believable, insinuating that the disaster is just below the patina of perceived beauty.

None of these works make explicitly ecological statements, but the theme is present in relief, like the photographic techniques themselves: indirect representations made through forms of direct contact. These topographies are concerned with a kind of cartography that emphasizes moments of human contact. It is the brevity of it all that is the real underlying claim: if we want the landscape itself to survive these photographs, we will have to act to preserve it. Otherwise, everything is fleeting.

“Ice” can be viewed at the Haines Gallery, 49 Geary St #540, SF, through January 29, Thursday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. “Elemental Exposures” is on view at the Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco through February 20, from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

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