Joel White’s vision leads to art

An epiphany gave Joel White the freedom to photograph what his vision led him to see. A retrospective of his photographs at the Fort Lewis College Gallery shares that vision with the community. And it is a vision the caliber of which is not often seen in Durango.

A neurosurgeon who lived in Los Angeles for thirty years, White’s early photographs were attempts to imitate his heroes: Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Ray McSavaney, Michael Kenna, and Max Yavno. He writes of his epiphany in his artist’s statement saying: “It was not necessary to photograph to earn a living or satisfy others. The images were for me.”

That freedom allowed him to capture not beautiful scenes and landscapes, but as he writes, “marvelous combinations of form, shape, line and tone.”

Since moving to Durango, White says he hasn’t photographed as much. In fact, most of the recent works in this show are from Greece, Italy, Romania and Croatia. When asked why not, he replies: “Well, Durango does not have a really great slum.”

The most powerful images in the exhibit, “Shape, Line and Tone,” a 30-year retrospective of Joel White’s fine-art photography are the early images from Southern California.

“Art in the City, Los Angeles, 1987” a graffiti covered concrete bridge or structure with a receding pentagon opening. Phrases sprayed on the wall: “To live and die in LA,” “La vie,” “Art in the City.” Looking beyond the trash, the tagging, the viewer is left with shape, shadow, line and form. A tunnel of white.

“Lost Angeles, 1986” explores the texture and pattern of a brick wall, a chain link fence, a boarded up window and wide, white horizontal lines across the concrete. A graffiti sprayed figure and the words “lost Angeles” on the left.

“Paper Bag, Hollywood, CA, 1989” is a black image with a simple, elegant, flowing, white “W” shape reflecting light and shadow.

These are photographs in which the form relates to the subject allowing the photo itself to raise questions in the viewers mind. White’s vision is to show us the things we look at but rarely see.

Even his landscapes provide insight into his unique vision. They are no longer imitations of Adams and Weston.

“Canyon de Chelly National Monument. 1983” features the texture of a rock, water marks, graffiti or ancient petroglyphs and a single-step twig ladder. The ground is littered with rocks and part of a crate.

“Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, 1981” four charcoal black dead tree stumps stand amid a foggy white mist. The trees are clumped with thick, heavy pillows of mineral. The fourth tree fading into the mist on the right looks like a spirit figure.

“Calla Lilly, Hollywood, CA, 1990” is far from the typical image. No O’Keeffe or overwrought oversized image of a flower. White’s Calla, perfectly centered among gray leaves and empty obsidian darkness, is vividly white, photographed from above, the swirled tip of the flower pointing down.

As for images from the region, “Animas Forks, Colorado 1999” is of large wooden support beams from a crumbling mine or mill. The numbers “5,” “8,” and “BD-14” are upside down and sideways on the large wooden beams. The floor is littered with debris and says more about the past, present and future of the area than any image that focuses only on the natural beauty.

White’s twenty-eight photographs are framed in simple black frames with large white matting. All the photos are printed with Ultrachrome pigment inks on Moab papers. Simple. Professional. Elegant.

White’s vision is that of a true artist: A creative being who sees beyond the ordinary and manages to nudge the viewer to truly observe more than shape, line and tone.

If you go:

“Shape, Line and Tone”
A 30-year retrospective of Joel White’s fine-art photography
Opening reception
Friday, Jan. 26, 5-7 p.m.
Through Feb. 14
The Fort Lewis College Art Gallery
10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
970-247-7167 Leanne Goebel is a freelance writer specializing in the visual arts.

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