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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

He suspected, when he and his brother set out from Maine last summer for a long-awaited fishing trip to Labrador, that he would come back with more than fish stories.

Christopher Foley, 50, is one of the region's finest printmakers. As president of Old Town Editions in Alexandria, Va., he has translated into archival Iris prints the work of such internationally acclaimed photographers as Philip Trager, Volkmar Wentzel, Ralph Gibson and Fred Maroon. But Foley is an artist as well as a craftsman, whose own earlier work in abstract color offered a textbook example of what the high-tech world of computer-assisted Iris printing can accomplish: images of incredible richness and detail, printed on watercolor paper to create a happy marriage of the photographic with the painterly.

But for all that, Foley wanted to do something different when he set out for northeastern Canada to encounter the barren beauty of Labrador – as well as to catch-and-release a slew of salmon and trout. The results, on display through June 16 at Washington's Troyer Gallery near Dupont Circle, are stunning.

"I wanted to not only depict what Labrador looked like, but what it felt like," Foley said during a relaxed interview at his atelier on the top floor of a vintage brick building in Old Town, where two iron-lung-sized Iris printers dominated one room.

There were flower-decked fields in Labrador, to be sure, Chris said, as well as occasional sunny skies. But the prevailing mood was one of isolation, even menace. This is, after all "a place of loneliness and solitude," where the outskirts of what few towns there are show no signs "of any human activity at all" – and where the weather, even in July, often was "rainy, windy and in the 40s."

Combine this with the fact that civilization and its attendant pollution have blighted some areas of the once-pristine forest and poisoned some of its water, and you have a landscape that seems to cry out to be interpreted in more somber, more serious – but oddly, more serene – black and white.

What Foley has accomplished in his small, elegant show at Troyer is an antique look with state-of-the-art tools. He said he wanted to evoke the feeling of the intricate black and white engravings one might have found in old guide books or journals of expeditions long past. That he was able to do this, not in book-size images, but in wall-size prints, is gratifying.

That he also was able to do this with the help of tools that fit into the pockets of his jeans is amazing.

Foley's two pocket-sized instruments were a compact global positioning system and, obviously most important, his camera: a tiny Fuji MX 2700 digital that, at 2.7 megapixels, isn't even the latest thing. ("But I like it better, Chris notes. "I think the image quality is better.") He maintains that today's current 3.34 megapixel digital cameras have to, in effect, cram more information onto basically the same computer chip. He feels – and who am I to argue with this computer guru – that the next big leap in digital camera technology will come when chips are upgraded as well.

Chris used his GPS equipment in a novel way. Given the barrenness of his surroundings, there were no names for the places he photographed. So, when he found a pleasing composition, he checked the GPS and made note of the precise coordinates. These coordinates, in turn, became the titles of his pieces.

It was disconcerting for me, back at Chris's place in Old Town, to view his huge, etching-like, black and white Iris prints, and then see the puny little camera that helped make them. Even more disconcerting to realize that the images Chris always had to start with were in full color.

But, of course, that is where computer magic – and an artist's eye – come in.

These large black and white Iris prints are much more than monochrome versions of color digital photos. (In fact, Chris notes, they actually are color prints, but made with a beautifully subtle palette.) To create these prints Foley has used a number of PhotoShop tools for a unique layering effect that becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Or as he puts it, "the spaces between these effects are where you find [what is] unique and interesting.... This is definitely not 'plug n' play.'" These effects included adding digital filtration, "noise," edging, and changing gray scale values to interpret what already was there.

It is important to me that Foley did not feel compelled to add elements to his photographs that were not in the original picture – in the manner of some of the old pictorialist photographers who had no qualms about masking out a bland sky in an otherwise good landscape and plugging in (with considerable darkroom finesse) a sky with more acceptable drama. Working with his original imagery was challenge enough: Foley noted that before he hit on the basic formula for the series of images on display at the gallery, he had to go through some 25 full-size Iris proofs.

At times like these, it helps to own the machine.

"Christopher Foley, New Landscape Photographs." Through June 16. Also shown: work by Karen Jordan and Kim Kirkpatrick. Troyer Gallery, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; 202-328-7189; Tu-Sa, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. First Friday Dupont Circle Gallery Opening, June 1, 6 to 8 p.m.

Old Town Editions, 205 S. Union St., Alexandria, Va. 703-684-0005. www.oldtowneditions.com

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Chris Foley's pocket-sized tool kit included a compact Fuji MX2700 digital camera and his trusty global positioning system.

©Christopher Foley
N51º24.730' W068º12.860'

©Christopher Foley
N51º38.787' W068º13.349'

©Christopher Foley
N51º54.120' W068º09.759'

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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