An epiphany gave Joel White the freedom to photograph what his vision led him to see. It is a vision the caliber of which is not often seen in Durango. See White’s vision in a retrospective of his photographs that opens today in the Fort Lewis Art Gallery.
A neurosurgeon who lived in Los Angeles for 30 years, White with his early photographs attempted 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: “It was not necessary to photograph to earn a living or satisfy others. The images were for me.”
That freedom allowed him to capture “marvelous combinations of form, shape, line and tone” rather than picturesque, marketable landscapes.
Since moving to Durango, White said by phone that he hasn’t photographed as much. When asked why not, he replied, “Well, Durango doesn’t have a really great slum.”
The most powerful images in “Shape, Line and Tone,” a 30-year retrospective of White’s fine-art photography are the early images from California.
“Art in the City, Los Angeles, 1987” shows a concrete bridge with phrases sprayed on the wall: “To live and die in LA,” “La vie” and “Art in the City.” Looking beyond the trash and the tagging, the viewer is left with shape, shadow, line and form – a tunnel of white.
“Paper Bag, Hollywood, CA, 1989” is a black image with an elegant, flowing, white “W” shape reflecting light and shadow.
These are pictures in which the form relates to the subject, allowing the photo to raise questions in the viewer’s mind. White shows us things we look at but rarely see.
White’s landscapes provide more insight into his 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” shows charcoal black tree stumps 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, White’s Calla, perfectly centered among gray leaves and empty 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 support beams from a crumbling mine or mill. The numbers “5,” “8” and “BD-14” are upside down and sideways on the beams. The floor, littered with debris, says more about the past, present and future of the area than any image that focuses only on the natural beauty.
White’s 28 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 observe more than shape, line and tone.
email@example.comLeanne Goebel is a freelance writer specializing in the visual arts.
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