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Barbara Southworth's Panoramic Poetry

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

You look at Barbara Southworth's serene, beautifully printed color work and see the inescapable influence of Eliot Porter.

No surprise. Barbara not only studied under, and later assisted, the legendary American nature photographer, she also has come to know and be welcomed by his family in Maine.

You see, too, how her subjects celebrate the natural world and figure that this has to be an outdoorswoman. And, sure enough, talk to her for only a short time and you hear about her passion for kayaking and other fatigue-inducing activity in pursuit of a perfect picture.

Finally, you marvel at the detail contained in her panorama images (made with the beautiful, if bulky, Fuji 6x17 medium format roll-film camera) and figure that here is a film-bound, emulsion-loving traditionalist. Comparatively young and softspoken though she may be, Barbara Southworth surely must espouse a firm, almost curmudgeonly, adherence to the wet darkroom and to "traditional" (i.e.: film-based) photography.

Here you would be wrong.

Though she is eloquent when working with film (Fujichrome Velvia and Provia; Agfa RSX-50, and occasionally Kodak E-200 Ektachrome) Southworth says she longs for a time when she can do digitally on a 35-mm-sized camera what she now does on film with a much larger one, if for no other reason than to lighten the load in her kayak. Since there also is a fair amount of tugging and hauling with a camera like the 6x17 once you are on the ground – the results clearly must be worth it to Southworth, at least compared to what other gear is currently available. So right now, anyway, both cost and not-quite-there-yet technology are keeping Barbara tied to her comparatively heavy, film-based, camera gear.

"I am bound to the transparency until I have to let go," she says.

Southworth's current show at the Factory Photoworks Gallery at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria is a small, tranquil gem. It is entitled "Green Light", with the subhead "Spring Light and Leaves."

Virtually every image here is about the annual tipping point, when winter finally loosens its grip on the forest and, as Southworth puts it, "color and warmth, slowly at first, and then at a delirious pace, return to the cold drab landscape and fill winter-blasted souls with sensation."

Her strongest work here is what for want of a better term are forest details: beautifully composed, barely three-dimensional abstracts that shout the forestness of the forest. Her other images, of gardens and of stand-alone trees, are no less colorful, only more ordinary.

Who, for example, can look at "Bluets", with its tiny white flower petals brilliantly emerging and seeming to cascade down a verdant hill and not think back to childhood: to Peter Pan, fairies, and sprinklings of magic dust?

To be sure, "Beeches" has been done before: by Porter, by Adams, by Weston, by Caponigro. But this image, by Southworth, stands with them, trunk to trunk, branch to branch, for its sure composition and magnificent light.

Finally, there is "Swamp." (I prefer Barbara's no-nonsense nomenclature to artsy, usually off-putting, hyperbole in picture titles.) This delicate well-seen piece is emblematic of her theme of emerging green and creates a striking contrast of new life and new growth against the much more somber winter forest.

Southworth is a native Washingtonian (as well as a well known photography teacher) who ventures out each year in March, April and May to explore the Potomac River, the Eastern Shore, as well as the mountains of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. She also has done extensive (and gorgeous) work in Maine, where she first studied under Eliot Porter in the 1980s at the Maine Photographic Workshops, and later assisted both Porter and Platinum/Palladium print guru Robert J. Steinberg.

The prints at Factory Photoworks are all giclee Iris prints on watercolor paper, which Southworth produced herself at Old Town Editions in Old Town Alexandria, where she works as a printmaker on machines the size of an iron lung when she is not teaching at the Art League in Alexandria, or at Northern Virginia Community College or at the Smithsonian.

The Iris print itself actually is just an inkjet print, though this is like lumping together the beloved $350 Parker Duofold fountain pen that I use all the time with the 39-cent Bic that sits unloved and unused in the catch-all drawer in my kitchen. The results have to be seen to be believed. According to Iris Graphics of Bedford, MA, to make an Iris print a million drops of ink per second from each of four different color streams are applied to paper under high pressure. And because the ink is sprayed on, it creates a continuous tone in reproduction, rather than the dot pattern associated with offset lithography. This not only helps create lush, rich colors and tones, it also minimizes, if not actually masks, photographic grain and allows for much more successful enlargement of images than with conventional projection enlargement.

In a sense this process does do away with the wet darkroom, at least from the average photographer's standpoint. Obviously in Barbara's case a lab has to develop, or soup, her film in wet chemicals. But that's it. There are no conventional prints to make (also in a wet darkroom – or processor.) Barbara scans her huge 6x17 transparencies, then does the equivalent of darkroom work to bring out the best in each of her images – only now on a specially calibrated computer screen. Though this process can lend itself to electronic legerdemain (aka: gross manipulation, aka: cheating to add or subtract elements) Barbara seems to subscribe to the hoary, though commendable, dictum that scanned images should be tweaked only to bring out the best of the photographic information that actually was originally in the transparency or negative.

[We can go on forever about whether it's OK to manipulate images, especially fine art photographs. But in this case, involving what is supposed to be nature, I personally prefer things to be, well, natural.]

Which gets back to why Barbara Southworth still lugs around her great big camera when she is exploring for pictures in her teeny weeny kayak.

Clearly, this is someone who is very comfortable with digital technology. But precisely because of this, Southworth knows that the technology, hardware and most important, stitching software that would allow her to piece together from separate digital files the kind of panoramic pictures she loves is today available only out of her price range.

But inevitably, that will change and one day, she says, "I could reasonably hope to afford a [digital] camera that could get the same kind of information [as the 6x17] when I'm out in the woods or in my kayak."

"Green Light – Spring Light and Leaves," photographs by Barbara Southworth. Factory Photoworks Gallery, Torpedo Factory Arts Center, 105 N. Union St., Studio #312, Alexandria, Va. Through July 6. 11am-5pm daily. Info: 703-683-2205

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Barbara Southworth
"Bluets" creates a magical cascade of white flower petals that seems to be flowing onto the forest floor. (Click on images to enlarge.)

©Barbara Southworth
"Beeches" calls to mind the classic work of Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. This picture – which knocks your socks off when seen large – holds its own with any of the earlier images.

©Barbara Southworth
"Swamp" illustrates how waiting for the right season – and the right light – can produce a simple picture that also is eloquent.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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Reader's Mailbag on Airport Screening

Of Zapped CF cards And Wary Security

Garry Winogrand: Huge Influence, Early Exit

The Gentle Appeal of Window Light