Vantage pointsBy Kurt Shaw TRIBUNE-REVIEW ART CRITIC Thursday, January 19, 2006
At first glance, the 22 square-format photographs that make up the exhibition "Emigrant Lake: Photographs by Jeff Krolick" at the newly renovated Silver Eye Center for Photography, on the South Side, look to be too much of a good thing. Focusing on the textures of the various weeds and grasses that fill each color image, you can't quite make heads or tails of what you are looking at. One image makes the berries and brambles contained within look like the paint drips in a Jackson Pollock painting. Another reads like a topographical map, as if a view from a vantage point far from what you are actually looking at. But, then again, maybe that's the point. These pictures compel you to hunt for meaning, until you realize that the experience of light playing against surface is being offered as its own reward, that and the fact that beauty can be found in nearly every aspect of nature. "They speak differently to different people," says Linda Benedict-Jones, Silver Eye's executive director. "They have different ways of reaching out to people." In the big picture, Krolick's lush chromogenic prints of weeds do make sense. After all, as American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) so deftly put it, "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Like Emerson, or perhaps more specifically his protege Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), Krolick's photographs taken on his walks around Emigrant Lake near his home in Ashland, Ore., concentrate on the beauty and lessons found in nature. In a sense, it became for Krolick what Walden Pond was to Thoreau: A fountain of inspiration that was as universal as it was humbling. It was not only an escape from the pressures of everyday life, but a place to revel in the wonder and mystery of nature and life itself. It was time well spent, because Krolick's unarguably successful works, the result of those walks, also garnered him the $5,000 award associated with Silver Eye Center for Photography's annual juried exhibition, "Fellowship 2005." In his statement, Krolick describes his images as "appropriations of the textures, colors and shapes of the winter season." But he goes on to explain that these pictures, taken over the course of last winter, not only highlight the textures and colors of the season but relates to a childhood memory of wearing his grandfather's fishing boots and wading through ankle deep waters of an orchard. "As I was seeing and taking them, the photographs were about design and composition but, from another perspective, were an unfolding theme, a very early chapter of which I remember from my childhood in Holley, New York," he writes. Of course, it is a natural and easy assumption to relate universal truths to something so personal. But aside from all of that, the work has an unmistakable lyrical character all its own. In formalist terms, these carefully composed photographs present the precarious meeting of light and texture, something that seems to hold a particularly sensuous fascination for the artist. In one work, the curling tendrils of rising saplings stand in sharp contrast to the burnt orange leafs on a forest floor. In another, a bright green patch of pond scum is presented in surprising contrast to the weeds that surround it. But as one will see, these meetings offer something more. As a viewer, these images provoke a peculiar sense of yearning, a notion of purity that is so intensely serene, they are rife to inspire the romantic poet in all who see them. After all, as Thoreau once wrote: "Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain." Also on view is a single work by each of the 10 runners-up for what is an annual competition. Some standouts include a colorful photograph of the entrance to Tropical Fruit Land at the Fairy Spring Amusement Park in Ho Chi Minh City by Howard Henry Chen, and a surprisingly humorous montage of images by Christine Gatti that features more than 100 images of the photographer -- photographed straight-on as self portraits, and with parts of her body in her specific surroundings -- that were taken at the 18th minute of every hour of every day during September and October. It's just a sampling of a project that generated more than 20,000 images. With a total of 264 Silver Eye members from 29 states and two foreign countries, Benedict-Jones speculates the prominence of this year's juror -- Lesley A. Martin, executive editor, books, at Aperture in New York -- gave rise to the number of entrants for this year's competition over years previous. But this increase also reveals a growing national interest in this increasingly important photography exhibition that is definitely worth checking out before it closes Feb. 4.