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Shocking Pink Pines

PHOTOGRAPHY After the Fact Still Photography at Carpenter Center March 17--April 8

By Eleni Constantine

AFTER THE FACT. Explorers accustomed to certain tracks of thought might follow that thread of phrase down different pathways of a speculative labyrinth. Explaining the exhibit's title, a journalist might ferret out the meaning: "investigate, search for, the fact"; an historian might assume "later than, subsequent to, the fact"; an artist might see "following, in the style of, the fact." All such mental meandering takes for landmarks three givens implied in After the Fact: a seeker, a fact, and and a distance of time and space between the two. The photographs are the result of five seekers' efforts to get across that space.

Unhindered by such cerebration, or the limited ways of seeing that it imposes, the five artists whose work currently hangs in the Carpenter's lobby have been taking pictures. In the last two years, their steady efforts have brought their talents to flower--any forthcoming fruit promises to be spectacular. "This is," says Ben Lifson, organizer of the show and visiting instructor in VES, "new photography; these guys are real innovators."

All five--Mitch Epstein, Thomas Germano, Leo Rubinfein, Len Jenshel and David Wing--are remarkably young (all under 30), and perhaps for that reason the process of their experimentation, study and growth positively illuminates their work. These still photographs show these artists moving forward. Now masters of technique, free of the supporting framework in which one learns the art of photography, they have not yet put themselves into any stylistic box. Lifson seems to have wanted to exhibit their searchings almost as much as their achievements: "I wanted to show students where they might be in three or four years if they just keep on working," he says.

IT TAKES WORK--in italics--to produce such pictures. Germano left a Wall St. career to work only on photographing his native Berkeley, finally inventing a camera to take the pictures he envisioned. The instrument's ability to capture incredibly fine detail and texture has made it a necessary tool of the avant-garde cameraman, and its mastery a challenge he must meet. (All the pictures in this exhibit, except Rubinfien's, were taken with it.) Leaving, as Lifson says, "no place to hide," the superclarity of the camera's vision lends these pictures an uncanny surrealism. The trees in Wing's pictures, or Germano's, have leaves that are leafier than any your eyes perceive. To see like this is frighteningly immediate and imminent; it's like hearing the grass grow, or a squirrel's heartbeat.

The deliberate precision of composition intensifies the effect of the detail's clarity. The pictures are carefully drawn into their frames. In Epstein's shot of trains, freight cars stand placed right and left, blocking out a space in which the smoke of a man's cigarette spirals into clouds Monet might have painted. The arrangement of bathers on Rubinfien's beach and stairs is reminiscent of classical paintings like Raphael's "School of Athens," especially since Rubenfien captures one old man who could easily pass for Socrates emerging from the water. These photographs all evoke multitudes of other images--perhaps a touchstone of worthwhile art is just this ability to reach out beyond itself. Rubinfien's beach house with a heart painted on it might be taken from Fellini's memory. And Germano's trees in Brooklyn, shading clay or plastic Madonnas, remind me of a Brooklyn "miracle" I once heard of... A statuette of the Madonna, enshrined in the hollow of a tree, began to weep. Though it was scientifically determined her tears were only sap, believers continued to trek to the dusty backyard to worship.

Color breaks over one like a wave in Jenshel and Epstein's work. Jenshel seeks out the shocking pink in everything--not only in a heart-shaped chair or curtains, but even in a slate roof, or a pine tree's needles. Epstein has two palettes, one to render brilliant events like a fire, one of muted greys and browns to capture the mysterious moods of, say, a harbor. Both photographers' use of color is exhilarating, sensuous. Awash in it, one slips the moorings of sane and pedestrian vision.

These are images of reality-with-a-difference. Gary Winogrand once said "Photography is the illusion of a literal description of the way the camera saw a piece of time and space." Confronted with such hallucinatory visions of the supposedly familiar, a viewer hearing that phrase might catch hold of "illusion" or "literal description" to explain these photographs. Their creators grasped "camera" and "saw."

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