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Art review

Art review: Blake Gopnik on 'Terri Weifenbach: Woods' at Civilian Art Projects

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The latest show of photographs by Terri Weifenbach is a breath of fresh air. That's almost literally true. Walk into "Woods," which on Friday inaugurated Civilian Art Projects' new space beside the convention center, and you feel you're taking a walk in a forest. Weifenbach has managed to immerse us in nature, but without relying on the cliches that art has used to tell us we're supposed to feel immersed in nature. That makes her show one of the best I've ever seen in a commercial gallery in Washington.

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"Woods" feels fresh in another way. The show opened at the tail end of FotoWeek D.C., a sprawling festival of photographic arts that filled more than 60 venues across the region. I spent something like 15 hours getting a look at just a part of the spread, crisscrossing from Georgetown to Silver Spring, from Trinidad to Bethesda. Before discovering "Woods," however, there wasn't a huge return on the investment.

The vast majority of images looked like ones we've seen before, in National Geographic photo essays, under headlines in Time, illustrating features in Vanity Fair or breaking news in this paper. There was plenty of important content on view: Conscience-shocking images of suffering Iraqis and female genital mutilation; heartwarming images of American folk festivals and of the inauguration of our first black president. The problem was that the subjects treated in these photographs had a hard time crawling out from under the utterly conventional, and therefore almost impotent, means used to present them. Many of the thousands of images in FotoWeek struggled desperately to be "striking," by relying on trite notions of impact: wide-angle compositions that rush out at you; brash lighting or bold coloring meant to catch your eye but boring it instead.

Luckily, some of Washington's more established art venues provided a counterweight, in shows programmed to continue well beyond the end of the festival. Art lovers kicking themselves for missing FotoWeek still have the chance to see a lot of fine photography. Those who rushed to catch the festival in its first days might want to head out once again, because several of the finest shows opened only at its end.

"Woods" was the best of them. Weifenbach's 28 images have an amazing ability to give a sense not just of the trees they show but of what it's like to experience them. That means the trees themselves are often hard to make out, given the mess of haphazard experience they are bathing in. Random branches and twigs cross our field of view, keeping us from a clear reading of the trees they are a part of. Few of those trees are presented whole; mostly we get a mass of disjointed trunks and limbs and leaves.

Weifenbach didn't set her old-fashioned Leica so as to keep everything in focus, presenting a world deserving edge-to-edge contemplation. And she didn't set her camera up to focus on a single subject isolated in a field of blur. She didn't even arrange to let a central subject go blurry and impressionistic and attractive. (This has been a trick of hers in earlier soft-focus images of flowers, which could sometimes be too pretty for their own good.) Instead, focus seems almost random in these shots, as though the lens, surrogate for a forest-walker's eyes, couldn't decide which way to look or what to concentrate on.

In Weifenbach's new work, we can't see the woods for the trees, but we also can't see the trees for the woods: We're not offered a clear, legible view of a whole that we can label "forest," but we also aren't given any clear sense of the component parts that make it up.

You might say that we can't see the sights for the seeing: The sense of simply being in a place, and of having the world's plenty impinging on our eyes, overwhelms the particulars of what is set in front of us.

The feeling of Weifenbach's technique also maps onto the specifics of her subject matter. She's not shooting grand, first-growth forest, deserving all the sublimity art can give it. And she's not shooting gloriously lush and manicured parklands, ripe for prettifying. I'm told her woods are in Wheaton Regional Park, and she leaves in signs of suburban humanity -- fleeting, through-the-trees glimpses of big homes and small roads. The no-place-ness often bred by bad suburban planning somehow seems to infect the woods in this show.

Weifenbach shot her woods in very early spring, before there's an impressive sense of burgeoning, and in summer, after trees are starting to look lean and thirsty. And she printed her photos using old-fashioned darkroom techniques, without the boosts in contrast and saturation that Photoshop could so easily have delivered. Unlike almost all the other photographers in FotoWeek, that is, Weifenbach made a deliberate attempt to avoid the striking. She wanted to make us feel more like we were witnessing nature than seeing clever artistry. Of course, that sets her in a rich artistic and photographic tradition: Lee Friedlander comes to mind as a clear precedent and influence, and Eugene Atget lurks in the far background of her project. But Weifenbach's images don't feel like a reprise of this past so much as a step forward from it.

Terri Weifenbach: Woods

runs through Dec. 19 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-607-3804 or visit http://www.civilianartprojects.com.


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