Exploring 'New Terrain': Exhibition at Worcester Art Museum challenges preconceptions (2024)

“New Terrain: 21st Century Landscape Photography,” an exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum, is aptly named. The show, which runs through July 7, does indeed cover new ground, challenging established concepts of landscape and of photography itself. The 30 works in the show focus on how 21st century photographers use a wide variety of processes to explore ideas of landscape as they address an even more basic question: What is a photograph?

Nancy Kathryn Burns, Stoddard associate curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, said she wanted to challenge the idea of landscape as a mimetic, literal copy and instead explore it conceptually.

She also wanted to showcase larger format works and display items that she has acquired during her years as curator that haven’t yet been seen on the gallery walls. She also noted that the exhibition coincides with the 200th anniversary of photography and the 120th anniversary of WAM’s groundbreaking 1904 exhibition dedicated to photography, the first exhibition dedicated to photography to be presented by an American art museum.

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Unconventional landscapes

By presenting the most abstract and unconventional landscapes at the beginning of the exhibition, Burns said she hoped to engage viewers and expand their understanding of what landscape can be. “I did that because I wanted people to buy into the idea that these aren't all Ansel Adams photographs,” she said. “When you hear that you're going to a landscape show there is an expectation of what we consider a landscape photo to be and a major reason for this show was what if we think about it in a broader sense as opposed to it being a literal, faithful copy of what we see in the world.”

An engaging example of that is a watery blue variable cyanotype diptych by Meghann Riepenhoff that reflects the artist’s coastal sensibilities. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and in San Francisco, and the work, "Littoral Drift #3 (Rodeo Beach CA)," was created in partnership with her Pacific locale. She made it by resting treated paper in water and allowing the natural elements to influence the developing image. “She just rests it in the ocean or in the water and lets all the salt or sediment create the image,” Burns said. “The idea is, ‘OK, that doesn't look like a traditional landscape, but it literally is the landscape collaborating with the artist to make the image.’”

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In addition to the natural world, the tech world also takes a hand in producing some of the images in the show, especially a series of works from 2015 by Elman Mansimov which Burns believes will prove to be historically significant.

The process used to create the series was through an animation and modeling software program called Maya, which the artist used to make text-to-visual images. Mansimov went beyond typical 3-D modeling, however, by asking the program to create images of non-existent things, such as a stop sign flying in blue skies.

“Of course, a stop sign can't fly, so the computer had to try to ‘think’ of what that would look like, and it came up with eight examples,” Burns said. “But a computer trying to think up a thing that doesn't exist is quite remarkable and it's the very first example of it ever.”

This innovation challenges traditional notions of image creation and raises questions about the creative capabilities of computers. Mansimov’s images also highlight the rapid advancement of technology, as they were created in 2015, making them relatively recent in comparison to other historical developments in photography even as, in the relatively few years since, technology has far outstripped those efforts. The rarity and significance of these computer-generated images has made them highly sought after by private collectors and only a few museums have acquired them, Burns said.

The role of tech

Tech again plays a role in a work by Tabitha Soren, a California-based artist, who explores the changing relationship between photography and technology in her work. She is interested in how we now engage with images digitally, rather than on paper. Her archival inkjet print in the show, “Katie’s Vacation Photo, 2018,” is an altered image of glaciers along a shoreline in Chile. “She used a traditional camera to photograph her iPad, capturing the smears of fingerprints on the screen,” Burns said. “This not only highlights our instantaneous and mediated relationship with photography, but also serves as a metaphor for the melting glaciers and icebergs depicted in the photograph.”

The show also includes artists who look back at history and use humor in their work. Adam Ekberg, who lives in New Jersey but grew up in Southborough, creates sketches and then recreates them as photographs using inexpensive materials. He has rules for how this must be done: The photographs must resemble the sketches, capturing the moment in a way that conveys a sense of movement.

Ekberg’s photograph’s, which he has described as “insignificant but not meaningless,” is represented in the show by his stark, humor-tinged photograph “Lawn Chair Catapult.” Creating the artwork involved placing a piece of wood on a bucket to create a catapult for a lawn chair, then dropping a cinder block on the high side of the catapult to send the chair skyward. The photograph captures the chair in mid-air, giving the illusion of it flying.

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The chaotic minute

Having work selected for the New Terrain show brings Ekberg full circle from the time, when he was about 8 or 9, when he visited Worcester Art Museum on a school field trip. The outing had a significant impact on his interest in pursuing art as a career.

“It was the first place I went where I saw art as a possibility,” he said. “It was the first time that I saw that this was a thing that people did, something that was taken seriously, and that there was a place for things like this. It was a total eyeopener.”

Another early influence was renowned nature photographer and Southboro resident B.A. “Tony” King. “I had the amazingly great fortune of growing up practically across the street from Tony King,” Ekberg said. “He was a true mentor.”

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Internationally recognized documentary photographer Stephen DiRado of Worcester also has had an impact on his photographic journey. Now 58, Ekberg said he has been attending informal artistic gatherings at DiRado’s home since he was 20.

Ekberg’s rigorously uncluttered photographs often show mundane objects in implausible settings — a Hoover vacuum standing by itself on a frozen lake, a punctured plastic half-gallon jug leaving a trail of milk as it rolls down the road on a skateboard.

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Ekberg says he finds beauty and fascination in the ordinary and enjoys re-appropriating everyday items in a fanciful way, finding joy in their liberation from their mundane existence. By capturing these objects in photographs, they elevate them to a special status and create moments of wonder and delight.

“It's the stuff of ordinary daily life,” he said. “They're not rarefied, they're not special. They're the most common things in the world and I love them being re-appropriated in a fanciful way. I think when something is so boring or banal, it allows for there to be kind of a greater joy in its liberation.”

To capture his flying-chair image, Ekberg used a large format film camera and enlisted the help of a friend. The location for the photo shoot was a farm in Indiana where the flat, expansive countryside provided a clear, sharp horizon.

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Ekberg faced several challenges in creating the photograph, including finding the right chair for the image. He searched online, at yard sales, and in big box stores to find a specific type of lawn chair — the old aluminum-framed, woven plastic webbing kind. He wanted a chair that was relatively light, visually interesting, and would register well in the image.

Another challenge was the logistics of the photo shoot itself. The speaker and their friend had to travel to a relative’s farm in Indiana, find a spot with a clear horizon line, and set up the catapult and camera. They had to take turns operating the camera and dropping the cinder block, timing the shot to capture the chair at its highest point. The process involved multiple takes and the use of expensive four by five film.

Adding to the challenge was shooting a moving object with an old film camera with a shutter speed that only went to a 500th of a second, which is fast, but not that fast compared with today’s digital camera speeds. “So, when making that photo, whether you are the person on camera or definitely if you're the person throwing the cinder block, there's this kind of chaotic minute where someone throws it, they run as fast as they can and dive out of the frame, and the other person just sort of pushes the button when they sort of imagine is right, but you don’t visually see that until it later when becomes a photo.”

Until he got home to New Jersey and processed the 25 sheets of film he had no idea if it worked at all. When he saw the results, ‘I was so psyched,” he said.

“There are some of these like an image I just did that I've been working on for 10 years. And when that one actually happened, it was such a sense of relief because it was so hard to do. And this one was really hard as well. But I knew that if I didn't have it, I was just going to have to drive back to Indiana and find some other time when I could get my friend free. So, it to a certain degree it was joy, and to a certain degree, it was relief that this wasn't going to be one of the ones that goes on for years.”

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'When you look, you start seeing it on everything'

Matthew Gamber, associate professor of visual arts at the College of the Holy Cross, and his wife and artistic collaborator, Yael Eban, have three works in the exhibition that span New Terrain’s categories including process-based techniques, conceptual projects and photographic documentation.

The first work is a photographic documentation of a landscape, specifically a marble quarry. The second consists of 3D printed rocks that have been painted to resemble marble. The rocks are replicas of common rocks found in the landscape. The third work is titled "Metamorphic" and is a large photogram that captures the mesmerizing patterns of marble.

The three works form a connection among the different methodologies and photographic concepts of landscape. “There are a lot of abstract, process-based techniques where the artists are intervening in the process in this show, and then there are others that are more conceptual projects, more thinking about an approach to what it means to encounter a landscape,” Gamber said. “And then there are the ones that are more about documentation, and I think our work in the show is a nice bridge in the flow of what’s on the walls.”

The inclusion of the photographic documentation of the marble quarry and the 3D printed rocks adds a physical and tangible element to their work, while the photogram explores the patterns of marble in a more abstract and conceptual way.

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Some of the attributes of marble that attracted Gamber and Eban to explore it as an artistic concept are its pleasing and minimal aesthetic, its association with aspirational wealth, its reflective properties, and its historical significance as a decorative material. “The idea about marble came in to play because we were just seeing it everywhere as a surface,” Gamber said, speaking of a marbling effect that mimics real marble. He and Eban became interested in the idea of how marbling transforms an ordinary object into something that appears valuable but actually has no intrinsic value.

“When you look, you start seeing it on everything,” he said. “People make fake countertops out of it. They will have iPhone cases or fingernails that have this marble surface. I was just looking at a meme on Instagram and there was a marbleized item that was for sale. So, people will apply it to surfaces because it's so pleasing and minimal and it signifies aspirational wealth, but then it’s really like an empty shell. You can project whatever values you want onto it.”

Burns said she hopes that people will leave the show and think more broadly about what constitutes a photograph. She also hopes that people will recognize the potential of landscape as a narrative tool to comment on various social issues and the relevance of the history of photography in contemporary work.

"I really do hope that photographers and just anyone who has a general curiosity about photography will leave thinking more broadly about what we call a photograph," she said.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: WAM surprises with 'New Terrain: 21st Century Landscape Photography'

Exploring 'New Terrain': Exhibition at Worcester Art Museum challenges preconceptions (2024)
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