Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Inspiration on Display: Elaine Erickson Gallery's "Eye of the Beholder"

Part II: Sanquist and Dr Zhu's Exquisite Silver Gelatin Photographs

By Peggy Sue
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A crowd gathered at the Marshall Building’s Elaine Erickson Gallery on one Saturday afternoon in January. They waited to listen to George Sanquist and Yong-ran Zhu discuss their silver gelatin prints in the exhibition “Eye of the Beholder.”

Owner Elaine Erickson rarely exhibits photography, and this represents the gallery’s first entirely photographic exhibition. Yet, these prints produced by hand from a multiwash, highly technical and traditional process became an exception. These prints moved Erickson from her heart. Before she introduced her two exhibiting photographers, Erickson mentioned these photos “were breathtakingly beautiful.”

Sanquist spoke first, explaining how composition and light inspired his landscape photography and afterwards, how he uses a special silver gelatin paper to develop the images. HIs paper can still be purchased easily because many papers have been discontinued, or made unavailable, due to their expense.

When Sanquist referred to one of two photographs, he spoke to how on the second night out shooting the exact landscape, he chose to use an infrared film. Then he discussed how the infra red film allows the captured shadows in an image to darken for sharper contrast, although each print he refers to is fascinating. 

The admirers found selecting a favorite Sanquist print might be impossible. Each photo captivated their eyes in an singular way, these fractions of seconds in a day captured on film instead of a digital camera. Sanquist then elaborated about his photographs that he believed, “Speak to ordered things in nature. And if these [images] speak to me, I hope they will speak to you.”

Dr. Zhu (an affectionate nickname) began by introducing his inspiration, studying under a protégé of master American photographer Ansel Adams, something he pursued from the first time he considered becoming a photographer. Although, Zhu mentioned Alfred Stieglitz as another modern inspiration as are Cezanne’s historically groundbreaking still life paintings.

“Still life images,” Dr. Zhu explained, “are very demanding and challenging. They depend on how the artist ‘sees,’ his own skill and [how he uses] the light.” Dr. Zhu believed the iconic still life brings what he learned as “equivalence" to the art medium.  Stieglitz explored the idea in the 1920’s and then named this 'equivalence,' which he applied to creating abstract images (shapes and forms) from which emotions could be evoked.

Dr. Zhu explained  for him “equivalence” translates into when a viewer sees an image, the brain makes an immediate connection to a moment from a particular personal experience. This elevates the photo into more than a mere two-dimensional image. Now the photo transcends the image and becomes a unique moment or significant experience for the viewer. He then added, “If you can not move anyone [by seeing the photo], then you need to take a better picture…to communicate to other people a shared experience.” 

After which Dr. Zhu claimed an element of mystery suddenly enters in, moves into this experience, the image's “equivalence.” Someone in the crowd then asked Dr. Zhu about his image of a wooden bowl with four humble radishes placed around the circumference, an exquisite testament to Zhu's skill in seeing and composition. Zhu quietly smiled, “It’s a life mystery.” 

This mystery might develop from Dr. Zhu’s interest in Zen, or spiritual photography. He likened Zen photography to the haiku, a brief, three line poem that captures the essence of a emotion, moment or thought. Dr. Zhu often writes haikus for his silver gelatin prints, although none accompanied these prints. The principle behind this Zen philosophy asks as Zhu related, "That the artist empty his mind and then let a picture grab the artist, instead of the artist looking for a picture to grab him and then shoot [that picture]."                                                                        

Dr. Zhu often wanders places that interest him with an open mind, waiting for the perfect inspiration, a scene that touches him in his soul. This way he discovers the equivalence, and extends the Zen philosophy, Dr. Zhu’s aesthetic inspiration. Whether an admirer is inspired by Sanquist or Dr. Zhu, these silver gelatin prints are becoming a lost art within the photographic medium to inspire contemporary artists. The technique and each print's transcendent qualities beautifully enhanced by the eyes of these accomplished beholders, Sanquist and Zhu. 

Elaine Erickson Gallery on the first floor of the Historic Third Ward’s Marshall Building presents “Eye of the Beholder” through March 9. To further information, or to view the art, call 414.221.063 or visit: eericksongallery.com. 

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