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“The C&O Canal: Nature Bent Culture Melting”

At Hemphill Fine Arts to Aug. 26

Until recently, Franz Jantzen had one of the more intriguing jobs in Washington. For years, he was the in-house photographer for the U.S. Supreme Court. I mean, we’ve all seen snapshots of Bill Clinton puttering around the White House and Newt Gingrich rallying the troops under the Capitol rotunda—but who’s ever seen the kinds of pictures I imagine Jantzen took every day? William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor lobbing constitutional attacks at each other with their feet up on their desks? Or Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg exchanging punch lines over tuna salad on rye?

Given the court’s extreme reluctance to show off its inner workings, whether mysterious or mundane, I’m not holding my breath for an exhibit of that particular Jantzen oeuvre. Instead, we have Jantzen’s photographs of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which he has been documenting off and on since 1992. And for a second choice, that’s not too bad.

Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown is an inspired location for Jantzen’s exhibition, “The C&O Canal: Nature Bent Culture Melting,” given that the gallery is perched only a pebble’s throw from the stagnant, 185-mile-long waterway. (The show’s enigmatic title comes from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, though Jantzen doesn’t really explain its relevance in his supplementary materials.)

The C&O has a long and less-than-distinguished history. The canal was begun in 1828 as a pioneering route to the riches of the Ohio Territory, but it was rendered obsolete almost from the day that ground was broken, thanks to the fast-expanding reach of the railroads. You name it, the canal’s sponsors experienced it: management problems, engineering problems, legal problems, labor problems, cholera problems, and, most of all, financial problems. By the time work was halted, the C&O stretched from Washington to Cumberland, Md.—only about half the distance initially envisioned. Following decades of underwhelming revenues, the canal—now under National Park Service supervision—entered a new historical chapter as a popular destination for hikers and cyclists.

Jantzen uses a 50-year-old camera that takes 4-by-5-inch negatives. He also employs what he describes as “flea-market lenses,” which result in substantial distortion toward the edges of his prints, turning trees droopily surreal. Other than that, Jantzen keeps his vision straightforward, although he clearly revels in making his prints look old.

Jantzen’s 16-by-20-inch prints call to mind the way photographs looked in the late 1800s, when large-format negatives, rather than the 35-mm images of today’s handheld cameras, reigned supreme. The old-fashioned effect is enhanced by the prints’ sepia tones and their cropped-in-camera corners, which make Jantzen’s prints appear almost octagonal.

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A similar sense of antimodernism emerges from Jantzen’s subject matter. Of the 13 prints in the exhibit, only one shows any sign of modern life—Jantzen’s stunning final shot, Mile 22: Floodwaters on Seneca Creek From the Aqueduct, September 1996, which is partially lit by a street lamp and crisscrossed by electric power lines. Each of Jantzen’s 12 other views, however, would look perfectly familiar to Washingtonians living a century ago.

Several motifs recur: seemingly untrammeled forest scenes; simple, whitewashed lock houses; and Industrial Age structures of metal and stone. This combination of elements suits the canal’s part-natural, part-man-made character: For most of its existence, it’s worth remembering, this snake-shaped outdoor attraction was a highway trafficked by boats and barges in service to industry. Moreover, even the canal’s natural features are not quite as innocent as one would expect; as a park ranger explained to me a few years ago, the C&O is rife with aggressive alien plant species—kudzu, wisteria, garlic mustard, purple loosestrife.

Jantzen understands this uneasy equilibrium. In works like Mile 22: Feeder Dam No. 2 From the Potomac River at Violette’s Lock #23, he eloquently balances seemingly random thicket patterns along the canal with the purposeful symmetry of the built environment.

Of course, the downside of adhering to an antique aesthetic is that it makes it difficult for an artist to be original. Looking at some of Jantzen’s bramble-filled, leaf-littered images—such as Mile 173: Patterson’s Creek Bridge and Mile 23: Pond Near Seneca Stone Quarries—I thought immediately of the work of the 1850s French landscape photographer Eugene Cuvelier. A member of the Barbizon school, Cuvelier is best known for his images of quiet, tangled forest scenes in Fontainebleu, south of Paris.

One photograph in particular by Cuvelier came to mind as I looked at Jantzen’s work. The Cuvelier image was displayed in the National Gallery of Art’s wonderful 1989 exhibition “On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography.” When I got home, I looked in the show’s equally impressive catalog for the image I remembered. Flipping through the section on early- to mid-1800s photography, I was taken aback by the sheer number of other photographers who shared Cuvelier’s aesthetic, from the obscure Benjamin Brecknell Turner and Philip Henry Delamotte to the somewhat more famous Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, and Roger Fenton. Even another Cuvelier—Adelbert—got into the act of photographing the woods of Fontainebleu.

And those are just the photographers who spent their time dabbling in woodsy images. A passel of other 19th-century photographers spent years documenting the industrial wonders then being erected, from railroad trestles to stone bridges. One of the best was Carleton Watkins, whose diverse images of the western United States—combining pure nature with manifest-destiny infrastructure-building—were displayed to great effect earlier this year, also at the National Gallery.

One can certainly detect echoes of Watkins and his contemporaries in Jantzen’s work. Especially striking are the structural similarities between a Jantzen image of the canal’s Paw Paw Tunnel and Carriere en Foret Cadre Verticalement, one of the Le Secq photo-graphs reproduced in the “On the Art of Fixing a Shadow” catalog.

I don’t see anything wrong with that kind of homage. In fact, I think it’s a rather appropriate way to view a $600,000, “wonder of the world” tunnel that was completed in 1850. The fact that Le Secq’s image was shot in 1852, two years after the Paw Paw’s completion, creates a pleasing intergenerational resonance. After all, Jantzen, in his artist’s statement, emphasizes the “timelessness” of the place he has chosen to document.

Yet only about half of Jantzen’s photographs struck me as first-

rate; had the show been any bigger than a mere 13 pieces, I would have advised that Jantzen trim the fat.

Ironically enough, the most powerful images in the exhibition spotlight a precise moment, rather than the timelessness Jantzen touts. Consider Mile 12: Stormclouds and Wind on the Potomac River Over Sherwin Island: In the shadow of an ominous cloud, a cluster of well-lit trees with reflective white bark shares the stage with murky, rippled water and a sweeping, Ansel Adams-like woodscape. It’s an image that I suspect couldn’t have been captured as well even a few seconds later. CP