Lynn Geesaman — Gardens: Aesthetic Intent, Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd., 812 Camino Acoma, 505-988-5116, photographydealers.com; by appointment through June 8
Soft-focus photography has a tenor that’s largely absent from documentary-style imagery: Outside of portrait studio photography, it’s not that common, especially in the digital age. It adds a note of ambiguity and mystery, of dreams gleaned through a veil of silk.
The technique, in fact, was the purview of pictorial photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and contemporary Minneapolis-based photographer Lynn Geesaman has returned to that tradition. Her photographs capture something of the haunting, ephemeral beauty of landscapes seen as though culled from the depths of memory, where details vanish but essences remain. They would be right at home alongside the photographic prints of forebears like Clarence Hudson White or George Seeley.
Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd. presents Gardens: Aesthetic Intent, an exhibition that focuses on Geesaman’s most recent photography. The exhibit comes in the wake of Lynn Geesaman: Images, published by the North Dakota Museum of Art and including an afterword by founding director and chief curator Laurel Reuter.
In a time when digital photography dominates the field, Gardens: Aesthetic Intent calls attention to a historic approach and a traditional means of crafting evocative images. In this case, Geesaman uses the 150-year-old technique of gelatin silver printing — the standard for most of the last century — to create images that evoke the idyllic splendor of the picturesque, with sculpted landscapes, deep lakes, and dark forests. The process involves coating the photographic paper with baryta, which is a type of barium sulfate, and then adding a gelatin emulsion of light-sensitive silver compounds to capture the image. Geesaman could alter the focus in the exposure process to achieve a gauzy effect in the final print.
The show, on view through June 8 by appointment, presents 17 images by the eighty-one-year-old photographer, some of them in black and white and some in color. The bulk of the photographs were made between the mid-1990s and 2010, the year that declining health forced Geesaman to stop working. She suffers from advanced dementia and was unable to be interviewed for this story.
“These photographs are about culturally known landscapes, looked at in a particular way,” she wrote in the preface to her 1998 book, Poetics of Place. “My subjects are found in European gardens, parks, and arboreal landscapes, where nature is shaped and controlled by aesthetic intent.”
Likewise, her process involves modification. She alters the appearance of places as they would appear to the naked eye in order to achieve an effect.
The photographs on view — all shot with a Hasselblad 2¼ medium format camera — were taken in Scotland; Damme and Chateau de Freyr in Belgium; Vaux-le-Vicomte and Somme in France; Villa Gamberaia in Italy; Packwood House in England; and Zemurray and Filoli Gardens in California. But Geesaman’s photographs are not postcards. She presents her subjects as enigmas.
Her 1992 photograph Leopold Canal, (Damme) Belgium, for instance, draws the viewer’s eye down a slightly curved road through a stand of tall trees that canopy the road in darkness. It conveys a sense of the unknown. The viewer might well ask, “What lies just beyond that bend?” The image is moderately sized, at about 2 square feet, which is typical of most of the work on view.
The pictorialists’ mission was to elevate photography to a fine art form. Like them, Geesaman’s creative process happened in the darkroom, more so than when shooting the image. Pictorialism wasn’t about developing an image, which any darkroom photographer could do, but about crafting and interpreting one.
“I’ve never discussed this with Lynn,” gallery co-owner David Scheinbaum said. “But for me, having spent my life studying the history of photography, when I look at Lynn’s work, I see all these influences. When you see contemporary work like this, you think, ‘Where does this come from? What’s driving this?’ ”
Scheinbaum regards Geesaman as a contemporary pictorialist, in part, because of the soft focus she brings to her work, but also because of her emphasis on mood and feeling. The pictorialists eschewed photography as a means of chronicling or recording things as they actually appeared, in favor of exploring a capacity to interpret what they saw.
“My interest lies in a transformative process, which uses photography to idealize rather than to document,” Geesaman wrote in Poetics of Place. She mastered an ability to blur some details, retain a sharper focus in others, and imbue floral forms with muted luminosity. In her lush and romantic view of Filoli Gardens (2000), pale yellow tulips in the foreground are well-defined, compared to those in the middle distance and background, where they begin to resemble ghostly, semi-transparent smudges — like afterimages. In the photograph, some of the leaves of an overhanging tree can also be singled out, while others coalesce into indistinct dabs of mottled color. The effect is impressionistic. But Geesaman’s photos aren’t just pretty pictures. They can also be moody and dark, capturing a range of emotionally affecting tones.
Born in Cleveland, Geesaman earned a degree in physics and mathematics from Wellesley College in 1960, and started her career as a mathematics teacher. Although she became interested in photography while still at Wellesley, it didn’t become her focus until the late 1970s and early ’80s, Scheinbaum said. She was inspired by trips to Europe to indulge her interest in public gardens.
“The idea of a lot of people with scientific backgrounds turning to photography, specifically — other than painting, sculpture, drawing — is that, I think, there is a fascination and interest with the chemical side of things and the darkroom side of things,” Scheinbaum said. “It’s familiar. It’s equally creative.” Both he and gallery co-owner Janet Russek see a lot of photography created by doctors, dentists, and X-ray technicians, he said. “Photography is their hobby, and when they get close to retirement, they want to be photographers.”
The black-and-white photographs on view are all gelatin silver prints. The later color images are chromogenic (or C-type) prints, which are dyed images created when the chemicals in the photo paper react with a silver halide emulsion during exposure.
“She was a master printer,” said Russek, who pointed out two photographs taken of the same location: a black-and-white image from 1992 and a color image from 2004, both titled Damme, Belgium. “We could say that was her transition to color,” Russek said of the latter image. “She said she was very influenced by Eliot Porter because of his transition from black and white to color.”
Although Geesaman’s black-and-white photographs contain areas of deep shadows or dark trees silhouetted against lighter backgrounds — aspects less prominent in her color work — the soft focus and sense of enchantment carries over.
Looking thoughtfully at the photographs, Scheinbaum said, “I think it’s hard today to not be affected by what’s happening in our world — between politics and our environmental disasters. It’s hard being an artist today without trying to address some of these issues. But after hanging this show, I had this notion that putting beauty around us again is as important as making a social comment. I’m not sure I’ve had enough of it lately.”