We often take the world around us for granted. On our daily commutes, it’s not often we stop to admire birds in the trees or hints of life in the weeds that peek out through cracks in the sidewalk. It’s not often we stop to contemplate an idealized natural world or find that element of nature in the face of our friends or coworkers.
But The Light Factory’s latest exhibition (through April 11) sets out to remind us of the little things that we miss every day. Photogenic Nature is a collaborative exhibition between photographers Benjamin Donaldson, Lecturer at Yale School of the Arts; Todd Forsgren, Artist-in-Residence and Guest Lecturer at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; and Michael Vahrenwald, whose work was most recently featured at Motus Fort Gallery in Tokyo, Japan. Highlighting the unique frailty and vulnerability in nature, each artist uses photography to color the way we think about nature and, at times, how we idealize nature and how our perception of nature can be uniquely human.
Forsgren’s series, Ornithological Photographs, is the first element of Photogenic Nature to catch your eye upon entering the small gray gallery. This collection of more than a dozen photographs features birds trapped in netting specifically made to collect ornithological data. Embarrassed, vulnerable, angry but unharmed, these birds exist in a very complicated state in relationship to their captors. Despite this data collection method, it’s easy to misconstrue feelings about the feathered subjects, a prime example being Summer Tanager (Piranga Rubra). This photograph, along with its counterparts, shares a beautifully pitiful tone. They show us everything wonderful and natural about birds — something we usually miss when they fly by at speed — but leave us concerned for their well being, an emotional response Forsgren plays off continually.
Technically, Forsgren’s work is stunning. He masterfully uses lighting and contrast to isolate the birds and netting on white backgrounds. Unfortunately, it’s easy to take these motifs and feelings and draw nothing else from Forsgren’s work. Outside of an especially embarrassed Toucan, the lack of variety or energy within the collection makes the whole experience a bit underwhelming, leaving you with nothing more than an appreciation for feather coloration and a concern for the subjects.
Donaldson’s portraits share a similar element of vulnerability to their winged counterparts. These photographs feature hypnotized subjects, told by their hypnotist to imagine their most ideal or beautiful landscape. The results are somber and vulnerable, each subject’s eyes closed or averted from the lens. The tenebrous relationship created by stark lighting conditions and frequent use of grayscale only magnifies these overtones. Named simply for their featured subject, these portraits are extremely haunting. Evan specifically stands out from the pack since he is one of the only subjects to keep their eyes open through the process; his blank, expressionless gaze adds an element of distance and makes the portrait less intimate. This increase in emotional space between the audience and the subject makes Evan especially contemplative in an already contemplative series.
The photograph featured on the Light Factory’s advertising for the exhibit, Ashley, also stands out, partly for its recognizability but also because it holds the most movement in a very static series of photographs. In her hypnotic stupor, the subject simply raised her hand, a change in pose that might have served, like Evan, as a great break in tempo in the grouping — especially had it been hung in the median of the line of portraits instead of as an outlier. Overall, Donaldson’s offerings to Photogenic Nature are certainly the most likable of the three artists. The humanity they provide grounds the exhibit nicely despite the rigorously static organization and execution.
Finally, Vahrenwald’s work entitled Forest Floor contrasts the idea of lush jungle underbrush with the weed-infested cracks of urban living in New York City. Vahrenwald’s series is inspired by Dutch master Otto Marseus van Schriek’s forest and flora paintings, and conjures a loose conceptual idea of “life finding a way” in the litter-filled, toxic streets of the Big Apple. But it never finds a way to implement that concept in a dynamic or interesting way. Combined with a scientific aesthetic vaguely mirroring the scientific aesthetic Forsgren uses in Ornithological Photographs, Forest Floor creates an unfortunate contrast between the two collections. What little energy and variety there was in Forsgren’s offerings came directly from the personification created by the portayal of the avian subjects. Vahrenwald takes a similarly technical approach in his photographs and executes them well, but the subjects — weeds, shrubs, decaying trash on sidewalks — are even more lacking in terms of energy or variety, making the last portion of Photogenic Nature neither poignant nor particularly appealing. In technical skill, the photographs have merit, but their lack of anything close to aesthetic or conceptual substance makes the Vahrenwald’s whole collection largely ignorable in favor of the two more engaging headliners.
As a whole, Donaldson, Forsgren, and Vahrenwald all present work that is technically laudable, each boasting a unified voice and unified, if nondescript, conceptual purpose. But each struggles with making their message compelling to the audience — or at least compelling for the right reason. Forsgren’s birds inherit their appeal from the personification of the subjects but leave the audience bored by way of repetition, as well as falsely concerned by way of lack of context (aside from the provided artist statement). Donaldson’s portraits add welcome emotional energy and humanity to the exhibit, but they suffer from static organization. Vahrenwald’s work is left as an afterthought — emotionally, conceptually, and aesthetically bare and unfortunately lacking when contrasted to the similar approach Forsgren took with his series, for instance.
Photogenic Nature may highlight the frailty we often overlook in the world around us, but it takes on that same frailty, as its conceptual and aesthetic arrows often miss their mark.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.