and Karin Rosenthal”
At the Fraser Gallery Bethesda to June 12
The Fraser Gallery is awfully clever to have paired the photography of Joyce Tenneson and Karin Rosenthal. Though both artists are women, and though both have made their names photographing women, their artistic visions couldn’t be more different.
Tenneson’s 19 images come from her recent book Wise Women: A Celebration of Their Insights, Courage, and Beauty. Her portraits are ultraearnest, mostly featuring, as her book’s title suggests, older, accomplished women. Tenneson’s subjects wear their wrinkles and graying follicles like badges of honor, and the book intersperses their distinguished visages with sisterly words of advice. It’s an Oprah-worthy lesson in fuzzy sepia tones.
Rosenthal’s sharply realized images, by contrast, show nubile models lazing over rocks and reclining underwater. Their belly buttons become suggestive negative spaces, their biceps become one with the bulrushes, and their well-rounded buttocks gently reflect the sun as they shed tiny droplets of water.
Tenneson’s images are spinach; Rosenthal’s are cheesecake. Of the two, I know, we’re supposed to want the spinach. But by juxtaposing Tenneson’s and Rosenthal’s pieces on opposite walls, Fraser makes the choice too easy. So I reach—guiltily but hungrily—for the cheesecake. And I stuff my face until there is no longer any room for spinach.
Perhaps this judgment of Tenneson’s work is too harsh. Viewed individually, her images are considerably more creative than the inspirational vibe around which they’re packaged in book form—a requirement, presumably, for luring impulse buyers at the Borders checkout counter.
In Tenneson’s portrait of Ingerborg Ten Haef, for instance, the artist photographs her black-clad subject holding, as it were, an ephemeral squiggle of light—a motif that Tenneson has used in previous photographic series. In another piece, Betty Silverstein’s unruly gray coif explodes into its own abstract shape. In one more, Mimi Weddell stands wearing a cloak that hides her arms and thus exaggerates her verticality to unexpected proportions.
In her portrait, Elva Azzara closes her eyes and gently touches her cheeks in a private reverie that distinctly recalls some of the hypnotized subjects captured by the Finnish artist Marjaana Kella (which were exhibited earlier this year at the Embassy of Finland). And Tenneson’s profile shot of a cheekily smiling Zelda Kaplan is accentuated by a jauntily positioned cylindrical hat. The photographer almost certainly intended to winkingly suggest Italian Renaissance portraiture; I immediately thought of the Uffizi Gallery’s signature Piero della Francesca portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, the hatted nobleman with the imperfect nose.
Unfortunately, other images in the series are less inspired. The profile portraits of Angela Lansbury and Dame Judi Dench, for instance, are static, and a shot of Sandra Day O’Connor reposing in a leather chair seems too obvious a depiction of a Supreme Court justice. The similar weaknesses of these images may not be coincidental: With the exception of a forceful portrait of Coretta Scott King swaying as if singing in a gospel choir, there appears to be an inverse relationship in Tenneson’s work between her subject’s fame and her picture’s quality.
Celebrophilia is not an unknown phenomenon in high-end portrait photography. “Annie Leibovitz: Women,” a Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition and book from a couple of years back, was stuffed with at least as many portraits of the famous and powerful. But Leibovitz’s meditation on womanhood, if it harbored its own pretensions, at least demonstrated a greater joie de vivre than Tenneson’s.
This, however, is not for lack of trying. In her introduction to the book, Tenneson waxes rapturous about the way her project allowed her to connect with her subjects’ souls:
At a certain point, I was swept up by a hidden energy and fascination that was shared by everyone who became involved in the project….During our portrait sessions, these women shared not only their outer appearances, but, more important, their inner lives—the heartaches as well as the triumphs. We talked about our families and the longings of our hearts. As we spoke, we discovered that the journeys we had taken toward our deeper selves, toward acceptance, love, and hopefully compassion for the frailties of the universe, were basically the same.
Maybe it’s my gender talking, but I had a hard time tuning in to this emotional siren song. Instead, I quickly became overwhelmed by Tenneson’s tendentious aesthetics. Part of this reaction stemmed from her photographs’ Lord of the Rings-esque production design: lots of cloaks, unkempt hair, ethereal lighting, mystical props, and faraway gazes. The remainder stemmed from Tenneson’s odd choice of toning.
Though the sepia color scheme used in the book is appealing and well-executed, the prints on display at Fraser boast highlights that aren’t the usual white or cream or beige, but rather an artificial shade of yellow reminiscent of lemon-poppy muffins at Au Bon Pain. Asking viewers to ponder the unexplored beauty of wrinkled arms and veiny hands is fair enough; requiring them also to block out the appearance of jaundice is a bridge too far.
Rosenthal’s subjects suffer no such affliction. Her black-and-white tonal range is remarkably vivid, all but snapping viewers to attention. And her subject matter is equally striking: nude models—or rather, parts of nude models—blending into the natural environment.
At their best, Rosenthal’s nudes appear to actually become the environment—a desert, a dark lake, a gently undulating hill. It’s the kind of trick that’s hard to pull off too frequently. But Rosenthal somehow manages to sustain it across Fraser’s 21-photograph exhibition. Though Rosenthal’s photographs were taken in varied locations over the course of nearly a quarter-century, they are at once diverse and remarkably coherent.
In Liquid Lady (1990), for instance, a model’s disembodied arm and posterior drape over a rocky cliff, precisely following the juts and angles of the surface geology. In Dune (1990) and Mirage (2000), Rosenthal transforms up-close body surfaces into distant sand dunes. In Squiggle Nude (1996) and Dimpled Landscape (1994), her models’ perfectly arranged, partly submerged arms and torsos suggest darkly lit fjords; the only hint that they are something else comes from the goose bumps they sprout. Rosenthal’s eye for composition is equally impressive: She molds the muscle at her disposal into stylized designs whose curves resonate with the zigzag reflections in the rippled, pitch-black water.
In some of her more recent work, Rosenthal has gone off on more abstract tangents. The pleasing composition of Crosscurrents (1999)—presumably a combination of more than one negative of decontextualized body parts—suggests the leafy patterns that Imogen Cunningham sometimes photographed. Other images conjure up the dreamy photo manipulations of Man Ray or Jerry No Uelsmann.
But Rosenthal’s best work remains her images that ponder the body as landscape, and she is especially skilled at creating the impression of islands barely rising above the water’s surface. In 1981’s Santorini (the Greek island where Rosenthal first started experimenting with her technique), an unidentifiable stretch of body forms a smooth, U-shaped inlet that’s punctuated by bits of mud playing the role of rocky seastacks.
Nude in Three Parts (1980) reverses this illusion, with a half-submerged model mimicking the scale of three nearby rocks. But the most impressive of this genre may be Lily Pads (1991), in which two butt cheeks rise ever so slightly above the surface of the water, mirroring precisely the size and shape of the lily pads they adjoin.
Lily Pads crystallizes two of the most notable features of Rosenthal’s photography. One is the sheer difficulty of making these pictures. In many, her models’ heads seem to be submerged, complicating not only the minute positional tweaks required of such complex compositions but also her models’ fulfillment of the basic need to breathe.
The other noteworthy aspect of these works is that water, in Rosenthal’s hands, becomes as enigmatically sexy as her nudes. Aided in some cases by the use of infrared film—which captures different wavelengths of light than regular film—Rosenthal depicts water that is sometimes translucent, sometimes impenetrably dark, and sometimes, most intriguingly, infused with the solid, reflective properties of metal.
In Abstract Nude (1980), for instance, the ridges of contact between water and skin become the undeniable focal point. The ultrasmooth water seems to be repelled by the skin, and the liquid resolves itself into an almost domed shape more typical of mercury. In Ethereal Couple (1995), four sensually posed legs recline in gauzily translucent water, but a hand—apparently a man’s—gently rests on the thigh of one leg, with only its fingertips submerged. The water is as solid-looking as paint, and where it gently wraps itself around the man’s fingers, the sensation it evokes is undeniably erotic. It should be no surprise that such images steal the show. CP