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Watershed and Precious Things Recall Early Photography

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Jeff Rich, Blue Ridge Paper Mill, 2008, edition of 10, digital c-print, 28 x 35. Image courtesy the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

This past Friday I ventured over to the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery for the dual opening of Watershed and Precious Things. While Watershed offers an environmentally conscious study of the relationship between man and his power to manipulate his surroundings, specifically focusing on the impact in the French Broad River Basin and the Tennessee Valley, Precious Things presents a group show featuring the small and intimate works of Heidi Kirkpatrick, Jefferson Hayman, Lori Vrba, and Lisette de Boisblanc, a stark contrast to Watershed‘s large format images and sprawling landscape photography.

Installation view of Precious Things, 2012. Photo by Dylan York.

Watershed features exclusively the images of Atlanta-born photographer Jeff Rich, who’s current work consists of an ongoing study and survey of the giant basin that is the southeast. His photography explores a post-Tennessee Valley Authority world in which man has created entire cities in areas formerly covered in water—the result of which impacts the land, water, and way of life for the entire ecosystem. While landscapes are the overarching theme of this series, the humanistic aspects of Rich’s photos are captured exquisitely against the backdrop of the Southern landscape, complete with a familiar collection of vegetation, terrain, and even the remnants of engineering projects.

Jeff Rich, Foam from Pollution, 2007, edition of 5, digital c-print, 44 x 55 inches. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

The photographs in which Rich captures people are pure Americana with Faulkneresque Southern Gothic undertones, as he chooses to shoot his landscapes, and even his portraits, in the southern twilight. Rich tells me that in these moments, the time between day and night, this temporary ethereal, is when the landscape itself seems to take on its own persona. This, he says, is exemplified in Southern Gothic prose, in which “the landscape is almost a character within itself.” One can feel the pulse of the landscape in the work of Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams, much like one can visualize the pulse of the current in the way Rich captures the flow of water.

Photographer Jeff Rich stands before his work, Harriman TVA Coal Ash Spill, 2009, edition of 15, digital c-print, 28 x 35 inches. Photo by Dylan York.

Rich uses long exposures on large format Canham cameras to capture this flow of water, as well as the colors of dusk. His camera takes on the role of a quiet, peaceful observer docilely showing an objective view of his subject. Worthy of mention are Watts Bar Nuclear Plant and Garden, as these show perfectly the goals of Rich’s work: the dichotomy of man and nature and their respective impact upon one another.

Jeff Rich, Steve Harris, 2011, edition of 10, digital c-print, 28 x 35 inches. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

Also drawing upon the rustic, dark aspects of Southern Americana are the works of Precious Things. In a style that reminds one of a daguerreotype, the works of photographers Lori Vrba and Heidi Kirkpatrick hearken back to a post-Victorian age when the exploration of ones surroundings and the human body were the driving force behind photography. This intimate humanism runs rampant through Vrba’s work and comes to full fruition in Kirkpatrick’s pieces in which she lays celluloid prints of the human body over pages from Grey’s Anatomy.

Heidi Kirkpatrick, Branch II, 2011, film positive layered over original Grey's Anatomy pages on found object, edition 1 of 5, 3 2/3 x 4 1/4 x 1/4 inches. Image courtesy Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

Like the duality of Rich’s work in which we see humans in their environment, the work of Precious Things bleeds off its photo paper and intermingles with the casing that holds it. Here, the frame is just as much a part of the work as the image within. This notion that the environment in which something is kept, and the corresponding impact that an object or individual can have upon it, resonates with the viewer, making this show an engaging treat for the mind and the eye.

Watershed and Precious Things will remain up at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery through March 17, 2012. The Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM to 5PM.