As we trudge through our daily routines, it’s effortless to forget the encompassing nature of … well, nature. It’s easy to swat away dragonflies buzzing about in their summer spirals, to overlook blossoming flowers with a casual glance, and brush off wayward seashells crushed underfoot. However, photographers Melissa Wilgis, Victoria Paige and Guy Pushee share their perceptions of nature in Wilma W. Daniels Gallery’s latest exhibition, “The Art of Nature.” Each artist displays a unique yet similarly photographic process to highlight specific aspects of the natural world.
“One of the things I like about my process is it gives you an opportunity to study the subject a little bit more,” Wilgis states. “For example, the dragonfly photograms I think are absolutely fascinating because you can see all of the veins and individual cells in their wings. That’s an art in itself. When they’re flying around through the yard, you don’t really get a chance to study them that much. It lets me appreciate the specific details.”
Of the three artists, Wilgis differs substantially as a result of her technique. Rather than taking photographs, she creates them by placing objects atop light-sensitive sheets of paper, which are then developed by the same means as traditional black-and-white photography. It is one of the very earliest photographic processes, and predates Daguerreotype portraits of the late 1800s, and it lends itself particularly well to documenting nature. Wilgis took inspiration from botanist Anna Atkins, who published the first photographic book as a collection of algae photograms in 1842. To this end, she strictly adheres to original processes when making photograms.
“There are no computers involved,” she clarifies. “No digital cameras or anything. It’s all in a traditional darkroom; there are no reprints. They’re all originals. I take the actual item, whether it’s a dried seahorse, sea whip, antique doll’s dress—or whatever it happens to be. I lay it down on photographic paper, expose it to light, and carry the paper through the same chemical process you would for a traditional black-and-white photo.”
The contrasts are jarring, as her work forces viewers to take in the details. Wilgis meticulously arranges piecemeal objects to form elaborate compositions of brushed shadow and stark white lines, which evoke charming neo-antique sensibilities. In her darkroom, Wilgis’ controlled flowing fabrics become a frame from which wildly trailing weeds burst—a lone butterfly perches on one of them in celestial white silhouette. Another seems distinctly fabricated in contrast to the natural theme of the exhibition. It shows an unadorned tiny dress, possibly belonging to a long-lost porcelain doll, which glows in ghostly white against a dead black backdrop. On closer inspection, a barely obscured frog stands out against the white weave of the fabric.
Artist and lecturer Paige works in a method similarly analog, albeit creates a vastly different form of photography. Equally adept with pencils, paintbrushes and cameras, Paige allows her trained eye to discern intriguing compositions that require little-to-no touchups once the shutter clicks. The results are dramatic, exploring natural textures via close-up photos of leaves, flowers and insect wings. Her macro-photography reveals intense patterns and shapes marked by earthly colors that gently dissipate into bare backgrounds as focus blurs around the edges. Paige’s process is remarkably lo-fi, considering her use of saturated colors, and keeps most of her processing in-camera instead of digitally enhancing pictures once the shoot is over.
“I take one shot and go with it,“ Paige exclaims. “I don’t really like to work a photo after the fact. Most notably, I don’t use Photoshop. Plus, with enhancements made before the shot you can get results that are similar to filters popular today. However, it takes a long time to set up the image and get lighting and enhancements to work before I click the shutter.”
In addition to the meditative intensity of her shooting process, Paige found a surprising connection between everyday nature and art history. “What got me started on the whole ‘nature in macro-photo’ journey was seeing odd little creatures intertwined with the foliage of my plants and flowers,” she recalls. “It made me think of medieval manuscript art. I wanted to look closer, first using zoom then macro, and then reverse-lens technique.”
Most of Paige’s photos in the exhibit were taken by reverse-mounting a vintage Nikon lens to her digital camera. While a camera lens naturally focuses on distant light sources, when inverting it shifts all focus to anything directly in front of it. Merely by flipping the lens of her camera, Paige transforms the tiny into the tremendous. Not only does this magnify the image, but lends the subject a gentle, soft focus. The artistic blur explains Paige’s affinity for macro-photography, and it also holds a certain nostalgic quality for her in the midst of rapidly advancing photo technologies.
“I really like the painterly effects of the finished photo produced by this technique,” she elaborates. “It reminds me of using high-contrast film and push-processing in the darkroom that was popular during the ‘80s. I will always have an affection for film. I appreciate having the knowledge of operating an SLR camera manually, but I am happy with digital, too. In today’s world, you can get a fast digital SLR with auto-focusing lenses and be pretty set for nature photography.”
In contrast to Wilgis and Paige, Pushee displays only digital work in the exhibition, although one would be hard-pressed to detect the difference. Pushee’s close-up photos have less to do with Paige’s painterly macros, and bear more similarity to Edward Weston’s studies of objects. Their stripped of their original context and feature an intense focus on smooth contours more resembling human skin than vegetable. While Weston’s turnips and peppers could be mistaken for nudes, Pushee’s seashells and sea-bird plumage evoke abstractions. The curve of an upturned snail shell reveals time-weathered grooves rendered unavoidable by the size and scope of Pushee’s lens. The curving wing of a pelican becomes a cascade of sweeping darks and lights, seemingly transforming each feather into a confident brushstroke.
All three artists will host Coffee, Croissants and Conversation, a special weekend showing for anyone who couldn’t attend the opening reception on June 22. It also provides a chance to interact with art lovers in a setting better receptive to discussion.
“For one thing, the opening and closing receptions are both [during downtown’s] Fourth Friday [Gallery Walk], which is fabulous,” Wilgis clarifies. “But there are so many good artists in town and so many good shows. We’ll give you this opportunity on a Saturday to come down and see our work. I’m hoping it’ll be more of a casual atmosphere versus the opening reception, which is a little more of an active, social atmosphere. We’ll be able to talk more deeply about our work.”