A picture is worth a thousand words.
This idiom really rings true when the picture is in the hands of a masterful photographer. Yet, despite our immersion in 21st century visual culture, the words spawned by a photo may be equally important. Our brains convert images into questions and stories. We see a photo of an old factory and wonder who were the people who worked there? What were their dreams? Where are they now? What are their stories?
Those are some of the questions spawned by Laramie photographers Doc Thissen and Edward Sherline at the “Worth a Thousand Words: Laramie Photographers” exhibit at Clay Paper Scissors Gallery in downtown Cheyenne.
Thissen is fascinated with old buildings, such as Wyoming’s Highway 30 homes and businesses left behind when Interstate 80 plowed through the state. Sherline targets Laramie’s old cement plant, transforming scrapped work environments into mysterious worlds of shapes and shadows and color.
Six other Albany County photographers complete the exhibit: Allison Pluda, Susan Davis, Susan Moldenhauer, RoseMarie London, Dan Hayward, and Ken Driese. Also included is a display of mid-century modern ceramics by Carol McDonald.
The photographers’ subjects include abandoned structures, Wyoming landscapes, the recent solar eclipse, and the rodeo.
I thought about industrial photography as I viewed Sherline’s work in February at the gallery. It’s an eye-opener to see abandoned manufacturing plants that are filled with light and interesting shapes. His photo series, “The Old Cement Plant,” features four large inkjet prints of common items: “Cement Kiln;” “Leaky Pipe;” “Electric Boxes;” and “Barrels.” These workaday titles belie the results.
The four barrels in the last piece mentioned display rusting remnants of a once-kinetic place. But what caught my eye was the floor’s sparkling puddle of water. It looked more like a shimmering mountain stream than runoff from a decayed ceiling. The barrels had the same color as the naked rocks of Vedauwoo. If you looked long and hard enough, you might find yourself transported into the mountains that surround the Laramie Valley.
Thissen’s series, “Bypassed by I-80: Stories of the Lincoln Highway Across Wyoming,” shows us these abandoned places in living color. St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Medicine Bow is a white rectangle in a field of brown prairie grasses and new snow. The background is colored red by the rising sun. Thissen says it took him three years to get just the right lighting for the shot.
The sign just outside the church door still announces its lone Sunday mass, which no longer exists. Instead, it directs parishioners to the church down the road in Hanna. The colorful steeple reaches out to the heavens. The windows show matching hatches which, the photographer said, allows some natural light into the now-abandoned church. The place looks forlorn. Thissen notes that it’s for sale, just in case you’re in the market for some investment property.
The one exhibit photo of four by Thissen that is different features a composite of long-exposure night shots of a busy corner in Cheyenne. The photo is taken across Lincolnway, the Historic Lincoln Highway that is Thissen’s subject.
To continue the industrial theme, Allison Pluda prefers metal over paper printing. Her unframed prints feature some of the state’s most iconic scenes: sunset at Lake Marie in the Snowy Range, the Wind River Valley near Dubois, and a thunderstorm over the Laramie Valley. The Wind River Valley scene shows off the red rocks brilliantly, making it one of the most gorgeous views of that landscape that I’ve ever seen.
In “June 2015: Super-cell Thundercloud,” Pluda captures the cloudscape in living color. It appears menacing and beautiful at the same time. If you look at it long enough, you can imagine the bottom part of the cloud that juts out into the prairie as the prow of or a warship or a super-tanker. We’ve all heard summer clouds compared to sailing ships. But this photo just reinforces the industrial-strength power of a super-cell as it navigates the sky. Both human-made structures and natural landscapes can remind us of the transience of existence.
Pluda’s work — “The Milky Way from Wyoming,” for instance — infers that transience may take millennia. Or Susan Davis’s composite photo of the 2017 solar eclipse. Or photos of billion-year-old granite formations at Vedauwoo in the Laramie Range. Hayward’s “Nautilus Rock in Low Sunlight through Smoky Sky” lights up the entire gallery with the reddish-pink of the diffracted sunshine off the rock face. As you view the rock’s outlines, you can see why it was named after a famous fictional submarine. Next to this photo is “Vedauwoo, Nautilus and Tree in Fog” by Davis. The fog softens the hard rock surfaces that we see so vividly in Hayward’s image.
While this large piece is printed on paper, Hayward is also experimenting with metal prints, using a different technique from Pluda, although the results appear similar. The artist has composed ComposiTychs (Composite + Triptych). Hayward puts two wide-angle shots of the Red Desert’s Honeycomb Buttes over another shot of the rock formation. He does something similar in “Little Red Foal, Tri-Colored Tail.” Triptychs were used often by Renaissance painters in their religion-themed works, a tribute to the trinity. Hayward brings it into the 21st century with digital photos, infused dyes and aluminum plates. An age-old technique reimagined.
Hayward’s prints are on specially coated recycled aluminum sheets. The dye is directly fused into them via a sublimation process. Pluda’s prints are simply printed on the metal. The advantages of both metal printing processes are clear. No need for expensive matting and framing. The images are crisp. You can hang them in locations with more moisture, such as kitchens and bathrooms. The downside? The stars pop in “The Milky Way from Wyoming” print. But the landscape of “Lake Marie Falls” is too cold for my tastes. Some landscapes call out for framed, warm-paper prints.
Moldenhauer makes mysterious and beautiful black-and-white images of the high prairie. Her titles are devilishly clever. She labels one: “The View from Home: One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind, 48 Years Ago.” That’s a mouthful. But the image is small at 4.5” x 6” unframed and the photo depicts a storm cloud looming over houses perched at the edge of the prairie. You can imagine the moonlander hidden by clouds landing in the moonscape that is Wyoming. You might be able to imagine Neil Armstrong in there, taking his giant leap for mankind. The artist tells stories with her photos and her intriguing titles, some almost larger than the artwork. “View from Home: Na Na Na Na…Na Na Na Na…Hey! Hey! Good-bye.”
Moldenhauer’s six photos are rendered in archival ink on Exhibition Fiber, a high-grade artists’ paper. Many photographers now use high-end printers with expensive papers to get images equal to or better than ones they once produced in the darkroom. This isn’t news to artists, but it might be to your casual gallery attendee. Will these digital prints last as long as traditional ones? Some of the processes and materials haven’t been around long enough for thorough testing. You can find an incredible number of papers and inks available online. Choices can vary widely from photographer to photographer, as does the amount of detail provided. Ken Driese used Hahnemuhle Baryta archival paper for his color prints of “Girl with Pencil Box, Uganda” and his other overseas shots. Davis’ “Out of Chaos” is a pigment ink print on polar pearl metallic paper. Technology clearly has changed the way that artists create and makes gallery-goers look at work through different lenses.
RoseMarie London’s rodeo photos show unusual aspects of the sport. She uses color and tight cropping to reveal aspects we don’t see in promotional brochures. No stereotypical bucking broncos here. London shows less dramatic moments. A cowboy’s neat white shirt is flecked with mud. Another cowboy is shown from the rear as he is rescued from his bronc at the end of a ride.
Many artists, not surprisingly, are visual learners. My preferred learning mode is reading. My one suggestion to make this show come alive for people like me: more written information about the pieces. Small galleries cannot put out catalogs for their shows. I have produced exhibit catalogs and it is no easy task. However, artist’s statements are helpful guides to their work. The show’s printed flyer answered some of my questions. The gallery proprietor, Camellia El-Antably (also the curator of Studio Wyoming Review), answered others. For answers to many questions, I had to wait until I was home to look up info on the web. I realize that many young people consult their phones as they view the work. I find that distracting. As I looked at the rack of unframed prints, I discovered web site info on the reserve side, notably the info for Allison Pluda’s Seneca Creek Studios. Perhaps those details could be posted along with the artist’s work. Some of us curious but tech-challenged over-50 types need more on-site info.
One final note: Carol McDonald is the lone 3-D artist in this show. Her ceramics are unusual. They are of houses or parts of houses. The imagery features recognizably mid-century modern furniture and cars. The gallery featured several of her works in a prominent place at the front of the shop. The artist demonstrates exquisite control in the decoration with tight corners, careful glazing and finely rendered lines. Here again, an artist statement would have been helpful. I didn’t notice the descriptions and prices, which were hidden on the bottom of the pieces, but El-Antably tracked down a statement from the artist. Here’s what McDonald has to say about her work:
“Through experience, I have developed an acceptance of the unpredictable tendencies of clay and kiln. In my work, I try to create a unity between the physical object and flat, graphic surface designs. I prefer surface decoration with pure, simplified shapes and bold, black outlines. My current work is heavily influenced by Mid Century Modern design and I try to honor the look and feel of that time.”
This helped me understand what the artist was getting at.
Catch “Worth a Thousand Words: Laramie Photographers” through the end of March at Clay Paper Scissors, 1513 Carey Ave. in Cheyenne.
Michael Shay’s book of short stories, The Weight of a Body, was published by Ghost Road Press in 2006. His fiction and essays have appeared in Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, Northern Lights, High Plains Literary Review, Colorado Review, Owen Wister Review, and in multiple anthologies including Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams; Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone: An Anthology of Wyoming Writers (forthcoming); and In Short, a Norton anthology of brief creative nonfiction. Previously he served as the managing editor for the WY Arts Council Artscapes magazine among other duties. Michael lives in Cheyenne and blogs about books, culture and politics at Hummingbirdminds.