Three photographers explore the earth in Danforth exhibits
Like travelers returning from separate destinations, three very different photographers are showing engaging images not just about sights they saw but about the ways we interpret unfamiliar worlds.
In separate exhibits at the Danforth Museum of Art, Abelardo Morell, Mary Oestereicher Hamill and Robert Alter employ distinctive techniques to lure viewers into the act of looking in fresh ways.
While they photographed China, France and the Earth from every angle, their real subject is the act and art of seeing.
A world-renowned photographer, Morell updated 19th-century technology to depict the seven continents as seen from outer space.
After traveling to China, Hamill created a multimedia installation that uses photography, video and music to fuse street scenes in Beijing and New York's Chinatown into a shimmering Middle Kingdom of the imagination.
An associate professor of communications at Framingham State College, Alter recorded architectural beauty and Kafkaesque disorientation in a sprawling suburban office park outside Paris.
Executive Director Katherine French said the trio "are all exploring very, very unusual approaches" to photography as a global art.
"I think the most important thing they have in common is their interest in the act of seeing," she said.
Visitors should not be put off by these photographers' ambitions.
Like tourists, Hamill and Alter visited other countries to record intriguing aspects of everyday life.
Yet all the complex questions they raise and insights they offer could also be found by photographing downtown Hudson, Shoppers World or your backyard.
Born in Cuba and now based in Boston, Morell is known for his camera obscura experiments that superimpose images of various sites around the world into enigmatic photos.
In his exhibit "Continental Drift," he has gone the furthest of the three by using experimental techniques to create photos that challenge viewers on several levels.
A professor of photography at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, Morell is showing images of the seven continents created with a 150-year-old technique known as cliche verre which means "glass pictures."
Adapting a method favored in the mid-19th century by French painters, Morell covered a glass plate with layers of ink to create different "tonal densities" and then scratched images of the continents into the surface. To make the photos in the show, he created a negative by exposing the plate and then printed it on paper.
Viewers looking at Morell's "continents" will see images that seem both realistic and abstract as if displayed by Google Earth or sketched from memory by an astronaut. They'll have to decide if that's enough.
Hamill's multilayered installation, "regardregard: project china, chinatown," invites viewers to process multiple images, Chinese music and a video of life in Beijing's now-vanishing "hu-tongs," traditional houses with courtyards and the alleys connecting them.
Like sampling unfamiliar dishes at a Chinese banquet, visitors will be rewarded for their openness to new experiences.
While in Beijing in 2008, Hamill lent residents video cameras and asked them to film neighborhood life. Later that year, she projected the Beijing videos onto surfaces in New York's Chinatown, creating superimposed images that - in her own words - "reveal the ongoing traditions of lively communal interaction (that) continue to be cherished even as they are threatened."
That's a bold statement. And while Rudyard Kipling once wrote "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East," it may be only non-traditional art can bridge the gap between true East and new East.
At the Danforth, Hamill screens the videos on the gallery wall but visitors can only see them through three "peep holes" cut in a hanging screen.
While the wall text references the early movies shown in China, then known as "Shadow Magic," the immediacy of the videotaped Beijing scenes is compromised by the difficulty of squinting at them through three small holes.
As part of the Danforth's "New England Currents" series, which showcases emerging artists, Alter is showing "La Defense," which features 18 large ink jet prints of a huge corporate office complex outside Paris that dwarfs its inhabitants.
A former architectural photographer who's been photographing buildings for 20 years, he reveals the clean geometric lines of towering skyscrapers and naked stone surfaces reminiscent of the ugliest excesses of 1950s era Soviet-style buildings.
In his single most striking photo, a tiny human figure ascends vast stone steps leading into the hanger-like bowels of a gigantic arch commemorating a long-ago military victory.
In one photo, the facade of a huge apartment building rises into the sky like a monolithic monument to excess and sterility. In another, the leafless branches of trees frame a bland highrise that blocks the sky.
"I see them as kind of inhuman," said Alter. "They're just out of scale, awesome, intimidating."
To enhance that disorientation, he often shoots these structures from below, creating the dizzying effect of standing in front of the Sears Tower and trying to see the top.
In important ways Alter's exhibit strikes the best balance between experimentally nudging viewers into fresh ways of seeing while avoiding the hubris of making conceptual art about art that's for artists only.
"The built environment of buildings fascinates me both for its composition and human interest," Alter said.
"I have a desire to document the world we live in. I think of my photos as continually posing questions," he said. "I hope these hopes help people make sense of their world. The best thing I hear about them is when people tell me, 'I never saw it that way."'
At their best, these three photographers deserve that same compliment.
The Danforth Museum of Art, 123 Union Ave., Framingham, is open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Museum admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students and free for children under 12 and Danforth members. The museum is wheelchair accessible.
For more information call the museum at 508-620-0050 or visit www.danforthmuseum.org.
Hamill's exhibit runs through May 17. The exhibits by Morell and Alter run through May 3.