Given enough pixels, digital photography can produce a vision of reality so crisp that it approaches the unreal. At first glimpse, such hyper-naturalism seems to be the goal of photographer Anne Rowland’s current show, simply titled “Landscapes.’’ The two pieces the viewer encounters upon entering the Hemphill gallery are views of nature so large and literal that they initially feel both genuine and overwhelming.
But look more closely at “View on Snake Hill Road, Middleburg,’’ a wall-mounted inkjet print that’s taller than the average human. Impeccably focused twigs border leaves that are sort of fuzzy, and the depth of field varies from sector to sector. It turns out that Rowland’s photography is actually a form of photo collage. Although the fragmentation is teasingly slight, these seemingly honest images are, in fact, untrustworthy.
Working primarily in western Loudoun County, not far from her childhood home in Great Falls, Rowland began by photographing simple rural scenes. The subjects are pretty, and pretty mundane: trees, shrubs, fields, ponds, clouds and so on, enlivened by the occasional car or goat. But each single picture combines multiple close-ups. The photographer assembles the individual frames — up to 350 for a single finished picture — with the help of a programmable camera mount, GigaPan, originally designed for the Mars rovers.
Some of the resulting pictures are choppier than others. The divisions between the segments are most noticeable in “View Northeast From the Intersection of St. Louis Road and Foxcroft Road, Middleburg,’’ which recalls the sort of multi-Polaroid portraits made in the pre-digital dark ages. (One well-known example is the cover of Talking Heads’ “More Songs About Buildings & Food.’’) The majority of the photos, however, look seamless from a reasonable distance. Seeing how the pieces fit together, or don’t quite, usually requires close inspection. The most visible sign of the artist’s presence is the shadow of her tripod and compact Leica digital camera, which is apparent in several of the pictures.
The individual frames are not always shot from exactly the same spot, so the finished work may combine multiple perspectives on an identical scene. This is not a new technique; you can see it in the “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals’’ exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art. But where classical landscape painters combined several vantage points to contrive a “perfect’’ view that was impossible in real life, Rowland seeks imperfection. The tiny glitches in her work mock digital photography’s precision.
In her statement about the show, Rowland writes that she first hit upon her method to achieve “extremely sharp’’ images. But assembling the close-ups into larger pictures results in mismatches and distortions. The photographer specifies that these “mistakes’’ — her word — “are all about, and mimic, vision and observation, optics and looking.’’
If that explanation sounds a little too art-schooled, here’s another one: Rowland’s approach introduces chance into a process that otherwise could seem overly mechanical. Composer (and sometime visual artist) John Cage used the “I Ching’’ to surrender partial control over his music. Rowland does something similar with the GigaPan, which yields flaws even as it eases the process of turning hundreds of close-ups into a single mega-landscape.
Yet the landscape is what dominates, even in such photos as “Old Bittersweet Tangle, Glenmeade, Bluemont,’’ a foliage close-up that flirts with abstraction. Step far enough back, and the digital defects vanish. And, since the pieces are so big, they’re easily read from a distance. That means the “mistakes’’ don’t dominate. If Rowland’s goal is to critique “vision and observation,’’ she may need to cede even more power to happenstance.
Two other local artists, showing together at Touchstone Gallery, exercise a more modest sort of control over nature imagery. Mary D. Ott’s prints of wild grasses and Janet Wheeler’s mixed-media “nests’’ present their subjects in manageable sizes and formats, and emphasize craft over conceptualism.
Ott uses dried ornamental grasses as the motifs for monotypes and screen prints that showcase color as much as form. Some prints show wispy shapes on white backgrounds, while others frame the grass’s fragile outlines in reverse and are primarily blocks of bold colors, including reds and red-browns. (Few are of these works are green.) The artist also suggests grass in etchings that are actually made with thread, creating rows of thin lines that evoke stalks. These “wide grass’’ pieces are sometimes printed in ways that abstract the basic design.
Ott’s prints suggest traditional Asian art, and some of them are printed on Japanese kochi or Thai unryu paper, adding vegetable textures to the images of vegetation. The pieces are beautifully made and unapologetically decorative. This work may perform merely the gentlest of twists on its natural inspirations, but it does so with skill and grace.
Since they incorporate eggs, feathers and bit of bone, Wheeler’s nests are more complicated. They evoke birth and death, as well as Victorian curiosity cabinets and Japanese lacquered boxes. Some of the materials are ordinary — “Nest XIII’’ includes an array of clothespins — but others are more exotic. While many of the pieces feature boxes made of unfinished wood, some of the surfaces are painted black, a color that here seems more genteel than ominous.
Within the boxy “nests,’’ Wheeler sometimes places nestlike assemblages of twigs, as well as speckled bird eggs and wooden ovoids of various sizes. The contrast between made and found objects is the crux of this work, and for all Wheeler’s care, the avian artifacts are often more vivid than their settings. “Nest XV,’’ for example, complements its ebony finish with tufts of black-green feathers whose subtle sheen upstages the rest of the piece. It’s just hard to make anything as cool as the stuff nature leaves lying around.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
by Anne Rowland is on view through June 4 at Hemphill, 1515 14th St. NW. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Visit www.hemphillfinearts.com or call 202-234-5601.
by Janet Wheeler and Mary D. Ott, respectively, are on view through Sunday at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW. Gallery hours are Wednesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. Visit www.touchstonegallery.com or call 202-347-2787.