WINCHESTER — There’s a somewhat obscure standard that the great jazz singer Betty Carter made her own, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” It could serve as theme song for “Down Garden Paths.” The exhibition offers the work of eight photographers as they record and celebrate the vernal world of soil and plant. It runs through June 2 at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Here the hanging up — of photographs on the wall — is locational rather than emotional, though the emotions these images inspire tend to be quite happy.
Color being such a pleasing part of any garden, there’s a nice irony in two of the most striking groups of photographs being in black and white.
Starting in 1987, Vaughn Sills would spend nearly two decades in the South photographing “Places for the Spirit, Traditional African American Gardens.” Sills’s 20 black-and-white photographs are as much anthropological or sociological as horticultural, except that makes them sound clinical and distanced. Instead, they are marvels of emotional gravity. Even when we don’t see the gardens’ owners, and we often do, the viewer very much feels a human presence. It’s telling that each title includes the owner’s name. Sense of place and sense of person join. And that’s leaving out what marvels these little plots of land are, equally fecund in imaginativeness of design (note the whitewashed tires in “Eula Mary Owen’s Yard, Jackson, Mississippi”) and lushness of growth. These photos would be overwhelming in color or shot with compositional busy-ness. In keeping things so (seemingly) simple, Sills honors her subject’s wondrous complexity.
Technically, Jimmy Fike’s 20 photographs aren’t in color. The title of the series from which they’re drawn is self-explanatory. It’s also very long: “J.W. Fike’s Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of the North American Continent; Plates in Which the Edible Parts of the Specimens Have Been Illustrated in Color.” All that needs further noting is that Fike shoots the plants straight on and close up, in a studio setting. The results are a three-fer: visually arresting, conceptually amusing, and nutritionally useful. Actually, a four-fer: Fike says he hopes his approach “nudges the work towards the numinous.” It does.
The eight photographs from Paula Riff’s “Shibui” (a Japanese term, signifying aesthetic unobtrusiveness) stand out from all of the other photographers’ work for a hard-to-miss reason: They don’t look like photographs. Employing the processes of cyanotype and color gum bichromate, Riff creates photographs without using a camera: just light and photo-sensitive paper. She cuts up colored paper to use as her “subjects,” so that’s what these works most resemble: Matissean paper cutouts. The results look uncomplicated and forthright. Yet that forthrightness coincides with an unclassifiability that makes for a real distinctiveness, especially with those images with a black background.
Craig J. Barber’s “Working the Land” consists of 15 tintypes of farmers, gardeners, and produce from their land. A tintype was the most popular type of photograph around the time of the Civil War. A viewer, looking at even a current-day tintype, can’t help but think of the past. This gives these very handsome, somewhat austere images a pushmi-pullyu quality, a tonic tension between past and present. “I have chosen to work with the tintype process,” Barber writes, “for its feeling of timelessness and its aesthetic connection to an era where we were all closer to the land.”
Ivana Damien George has works from two very different groups. Five large-size color prints celebrate the fruits of the garden; in this case, they’re vegetables. “She Discovered a Hidden Treasure,” with a very large bottle gourd, is the most amusing image in the show. Another dozen, much smaller, are black-and-white digital prints transferred to aluminum. They are backyard cousins of Barber’s tintypes.
The 15 photographs from Marcy Palmer’s “Flora” series, some of them quite strikingly handsome, look like platinum prints, one of the most lusciously delicate of photographic processes. The effect comes from her application of gold leaf and varnish to the surface of the photographs, which are printed on vellum. The use of gold is subtle, an enhancement rather than a distraction. There’s nothing vulgar about it. The slightly hothouse look — it’s vaguely fin-de-siecle, and in a good way — is not bestowed on the products of a hothouse. Rather, Palmer’s subjects are common plants found in her backyard or neighborhood.
Joan Lobis Brown’s “Phantasmagorical” presents a lushly verdant world, almost disorientingly so. The disorientation is heightened, or achieved, by shooting through glass and using reflection. In these 10 color photographs, Brown writes, “I merged reflections from the exterior with the interior and created my own fantasyland.”
Instead of reflection, Emily Hamilton Laux uses refraction in her series “Beauty Versus Beauty.” Against a white or grayish background, she shoots plants submerged in water in vintage jars. The photographs have white mattes and white frames. The effect is unassertive and alluring, as of a more subdued, even serene, version of watercolor. Some of the plants are native species, others invasive, hence that “versus” in the title. The larger point is that whenever it’s beauty versus beauty, it’s always beauty that wins.
DOWN GARDEN PATHS
At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through June 2. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.