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“Tom Baril: Photographs”

At the Ralls Collection to July 8

To say that Tom Baril’s brand of photography is a throwback would understate the point: He’s never shot an image that couldn’t pass for something taken in the ’20s, ’30s, or ’40s. But considering that those decades constitute one of photography’s golden ages, Baril needn’t be ashamed of his orientation.

Many folks know Baril best as the personal printer for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose frankly erotic artistry spawned much controversy during the ’80s. But since Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Baril has faced the substantial challenge of emerging from his collaborator’s shadow. He postponed working on botanical still lifes—the backbone of his current 30-image show at the Ralls Collection in Georgetown—until recently, largely because, to many observers, such works seemed too reminiscent of Mapplethorpe’s. Baril’s botanical images more closely resemble those of Karl Blossfeldt, a photographer in Weimar Germany—further evidence that Baril’s inspiration lies several decades before the present.

Baril shoots most of his extreme floral closeups with a pinhole camera. But unlike Virginia-based pinhole photographer Beth Beck—whose recent show at Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory featured churches that buckled, swayed, and sagged in funhouse fashion—Baril uses his camera for resolute directness. The petals of 1998’s Hibiscus exude the substantial feel of Naugahyde; the closed bud of 1998’s Eustoma stands straight upright, conveying a tightly coiled intensity. Both blooms seem streetlight-solid, much like 1997’s Morning Glory, which spreads as monumentally as a table umbrella—and looks just as hefty.

Baril’s photographs, like his former employer’s, often carry a sexual charge, though their eroticism is typically sublimated. Notably, the sexiest flower around, the orchid, is nowhere to be seen. Rather, the translucence of Brugmansia (1998) immediately—and vividly—brings to mind those famous ’30s glamour shots of Greta Garbo. And the vibe in Baril’s creamy Calla Lily (1998) owes less to Georgia O’Keeffe’s sexually explicit floral paintings of the species than to Irving Penn’s sinuous fashion photography. On the rare occasions when Baril’s work becomes explicitly erotic, it’s usually for comic effect, as in Alpine Poppies (1998), in which the hairy, testicular buds are more funny than sexy.

Botanicals account for most of Baril’s show at the Ralls, though it contains examples of his other genre exercises as well—some of them working much better than others. Baril’s images of archaeological artifacts disappoint with their odd stasis. By contrast, Baril’s architectural photographs of New York—his longtime base—strike you with a far greater range of moods.

The works in the New York series look timeless, betraying not even the stray clue that they were made after 1950. Baril’s images of bridge spans, old skyscrapers, and marble columns could easily have been shot by Lewis Hine or Alvin Langdon Coburn, two artists active in the ’20s, although the photographs’ style owes more to the earlier, fuzzier pictorialism of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

The vagaries of the pinhole camera explain why. Because its depth of field cannot be adjusted, it captures all objects with more or less the same degree of focus, regardless of their distance. For instance, the beams, wires, and trusses in George Washington Bridge all cast the same crisp shadows, regardless of their distance from the viewer. Empire State Building and Woolworth Building both appear in gauzy hazes, set against charcoal-gray skies.

Too bad the Ralls show isn’t bigger, because a limited-edition 1997 book of Baril’s work (released by the publishing division of maverick London record label 4AD) illustrates several different directions of his work that would have been interesting to absorb life-size. (If you’re lucky, a copy of this $350 tome will be sitting on the gallery’s table, ready to leaf through.)

Some of Baril’s images from the book pay homage to artists from the early to middle part of the 20th century, especially his close-ups of curled paper, which echo experiments by Francis Bruguiere and Man Ray, as well as his shots of an obese model, which, curiously, bring to mind Edward Weston’s famously erotic 1930 image of a green pepper. Elsewhere in the book, Baril playfully pairs his own botanicals with manufactured analogues, such as examples of ironwork. Although the pairings may read as obvious, they are a welcome bit of self-deprecation in an otherwise serious collection.

Baril fully acknowledges his debt to the past. In a recent interview with the magazine Photomarket, he said, “I’ve always dealt with classic imagery, such as landscapes and flowers. It goes back to the history of the medium. My new work is kind of an homage to the history of photography. It’s my take on it, really.”

One might complain that Baril merely recapitulates history rather than expands on it, and there is an element of truth to that charge. But in recent decades, the rewards conferred within artistic circles have often depended more on the originality of an artist’s idea—especially the shock it inspires—than on the quality of an artist’s craftsmanship. Baril’s idea may not be the most original in contemporary photography, but it is a good one—and his work is extraordinarily well-executed. If we can tolerate mediocre works simply because they’re groundbreaking, then we can surely accept beautiful works that aren’t especially innovative. CP