Elemental’s three complementary photographers—Chris McCaw, Mitch Dobrowner and Edward Ranney—all focus on nature as their subject, but without an overt environmental message. A show that invokes earth, fire, wind, water and heart, however, can’t stray too far from the Planeteers’ territory—or from fear and love.
McCaw’s Sunburn series uses the process of solarization—an unintended effect he discovered by forgetting to close his camera’s shutter—to turn land and seascapes into muted negatives, eerie inverses of what’s expected of scenic sunsets. Additionally, after lengthy exposure, the sun physically scars the negatives, creating what appear to be sickly cigarette burns where the sun used to be.
The result is a sci-fi-looking collection that could easily be the backdrop for the original ’60s TV version of Lost in Space. The gelatin silver paper negatives portray the sun with reverent dread, showcasing its capacity to destroy. Indeed, the sun scar in “No. 218” looks like a post-apocalyptic laser beam attempting to annihilate a tree-lined crag.
Dobrowner’s Storms series falls halfway between fear and love. Large-scale shots of billowing storms reveal equal parts awe and respect. Most of the prints showcase a large storm system, whose size is exaggerated by the relatively small space Dobrowner gives the earth—which is usually just a sliver in comparison.
“Arm of God” features an undulating cloud formation that swirls menacingly above a meager strip of earth and its even less-impressive signs of life. For Dobrowner, the human world lives capriciously in the shadow of great natural beauty and power.
Ranney’s images in Down Country—which accompany Lucy Lippard’s eponymous book about the Tano people and the Galisteo Basin—are the least singularly emotive. The photos of Galisteo Basin expanses and the petroglyphs therein are straightforward and non-sentimental. There are no tricks or ideal scenarios to play up the majesty and mystery of the area. The land is beautiful without exaggeration.
Threat, too, is present, but only if one has knowledge of the Galisteo Basin and how it’s been hazarded by the scourge of development. In Ranney’s treatment, there’s a loving relationship with the land, but an agreement not to kiss in public. Ironically, the location to which so much text is dedicated in the book speaks for itself.
In all of the works in Elemental, human beings are quietly missing, although their presence is inextricable from the subject matter. McCaw recalls humanity with the burnt negatives, which create an awareness of the film itself and, by extension, the person taking the pictures. Dobrowner’s humans are suggested only by their machinations: tiny lilted fence posts or diminutive silos beneath an ominous sky. Ranney’s humans are present in the petroglyphs once made by their hands, but even more so in the context of the present controversy surrounding Galisteo Basin development.
The environmental art in Elemental has no disruptive installation art like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” no radical verbiage, just an exposition of the natural world—with a side of fear, love and, fortunately, restraint.