Friday, March 17, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #7

The seventh of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #7: Bruce Barnbaum's Circular Chimney, Antelope Canyon


Bruce Barnbaum, as he reveals on his website, entered photography as a hobbyist in the 1960s; he is still at it today, though his "hobby" has turned into a life's work. His photographs typically contain ambiguities of scale and perspective, inviting the viewer to actively participate in the recursive creative process.

Earning Bachelor's and Master's degrees in mathematics from UCLA in 1965 and 1967, and spending a few years working as a mathematical analyst and computer programmer, Barnbaum quit the field and turned to photography full-time in 1970 (though his "eye" retained much of his mathematical training; the importance of which I can attest to as well, speaking as both photographer and physicist). Bruce Barnbaum is widely regarded as one of the world's finest living photographic craftsmen and darkroom printers.

I confess that my seventh "epiphanous" image, Barnbaum's Circular Chimney, proved to be a particularly hard choice to make, because it is, in truth, but one example of an entire gallery of exquisite Slit canyon photographs, any one of which most photographers would be proud to call their own masterpiece!.

It is also but one of the many spectacular photographs my eyes first fell on in 1987 as I was slowly (in rapturous awe really!) thumbing through my then newly purchased copy of Barnbaum's first book, Visual Symphony. The book is organized into four movements - The Landscape; The Cathedrals of England; Urban Geometrics; and The Slit Canyons - and contains images that are so beautfully composed and exquisitely toned and rendered, that (certainly up until that point in time) I had never seen anything approaching that standard. This book remains as one of the most remarkable collections of photographs ever to grace the covers of a book.

While Barnbaum is not the first photographer to photograph within the often claustrophobic confines of Arizona's slit canyons (nor the first to cast an artistic "eye" on the sanctified spaces of Cathedrals), he was the first to elevate their light and form into fine art. What is even more remarkable, is that in this one book (now, sadly, long out of print and unavailable) - Barnbaum does the same for each of his chosen subjects. Matching (maybe surpassing) Weston's compositions for clarity and purity of expression, and with tonal ranges that sometimes exceed Adams' finest efforts, Barnbaum's photos reveal an almost supernaturally transcendent beauty no one had imagined lurked beneath the surface of canyon walls, cathedral pillars, architectural forms and landscapes.

To be sure, photography generally works best, as an art form, whenever it reveals the hidden beauty of nature; and there are many gifted artists who manage to do this time and again. But what Barnbaum's photography revealed to me back in 1987 (a lesson I have carried with me ever since), is that there are even greater depths of aesthetic, even spiritual, beauty to be plumbed in what otherwise, and to others, may appear to be "old themes" and "tired" cliches.

When I first saw Barnbaum's Circular Chimney, I could not help but feel that I was somehow looking directly at the face of God; it was that powerful, as a photograph, and as a visual, and spiritual exprience. I learned that photography, if practiced in a dedicated, empassioned soulful manner, can indeed elevate the utterly mundane (rocks and light) to the highest planes of spiritual understanding, and communication (as art).

The possibility of this magical transformation from the ordinary to ethereal is what drives much of my own photography, and is another reason why I love fine art photography.

2 comments:

David S. Mazel said...

These last two photos have, frankly, lost me. The ealier one, like the glasses and ashtray, give me a way to view the scene and attach some type of reality to it. These two, however, are removed from reality and while they may leave much to the viewer, they leave too much to him.

Photography should have some connection to reality. Yes, the scene may be filtered to show different light, as earlier photographers did. Yes, the photo may be doctored and edited with Photoshop, as current photographers do. In the end, however, the photo should, I believe, reflect reality and not be so devoid and detached from it.

That's my 2-cents.

David S. Mazel said...

Where is photograph #8?

Also, how about a post that would let a neophyte, like myself, understand photography a little more? You know, a short primer on photography and what it takes to make a picture, from seeing something, to camera settings, to snapping a picture, to processing, to posting and printing would be great.