Another Place In Time
Linda Butler's photographs capture the human essence that lingers in Italy's ancient hidden places.
Thursday, September 27, 2001
Any time a photographer transcends the medium''s mechanical process to produce emotional images it gives one pause. When a photographer working in the "straight" photography vein, an area rife with the pitfalls of cliché and the paradigms of past masters, explores a truly original vision, it is cause for celebration.
Bring your party favors and Kool-aid to the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel''s Sunset Center for the "Linda Butler: Italy--In the Shadows of Time" exhibition. It''s a series of revelations, an exploration of the felt but unseen, a body of work that conjures the faintest strains of a cello playing in the distance. Butler has grasped the golden ring.
A noted photographer of series in which she examines a subject in all its subtleties and permutations (such as her series on the Shakers), Butler traveled the length and breadth of Italy searching for images that, to her, captured "the presence of the past." To anyone who has been to Italy or another European country, the past seems ever-present, but it is another thing altogether to sustain a vision--an inquisitive eye--to photograph scenes that summon not just faded memories or old buildings, but the spirit of "place" and the essence of lives lived.
Butler''s Italy series weaves thematic threads of melancholy and joy into a tapestry depicting the parade of human experience. In ancient ruins, the weather-scarred walls of a palazzo, or a wisteria-shrouded archway, there is a sense of drama; it is not a story unfolding, but its aftermath--the emotional fallout after seeing Shakespeare, the silence in the car home while savoring a tragedy''s end.
In seven one-month trips from 1992 to 1996, Butler stayed with friends and used an ever-growing network of friends and acquaintances to enlarge her experience of the Italy she desired to photograph. These allies revealed to her locations in the back country and brought her into their homes. Her purpose was to avoid the monuments and sites of the tourist trail; she wanted to get to the heart of the country in every way.
Butler used a 4x5 camera on a tripod. The time-consuming process of setting up didn''t allow for spontaneity; rather, it generated a studied, unpeopled picture devoid of the immediacy of human action. However, the human presence is never far away. It is in this implied presence--in people''s kitchens, gardens, empty theaters, gondola repair shops, churches, ruins, harbors, and cheese works--that the power of her vision lies.
Butler''s technique draws a range of emotional effects from the medium. She creates rich, velvety black tones that weight the pictures with a somberness that is offset with a tint on the highlights. This light tone reads as a peach-colored wash--not quite the much-used sepia tone--and imparts a mysterious glow. In between these extremes of light and dark, peach and black, is an array of middle tones that define the myriad details achieved with the large format negative. The eye wanders over a picture, drinking in the textures of every leaf, every passage of stone wall, every blush of a diaphanous curtain fluttering in the afternoon breeze.
In "Olive Trees, Ceglie Messapica," two massive olive trees lord over the picture plane. These are time-worn, gnarled, stately sages, witnesses to hundreds of years of labor and bearers of life-sustaining fruit. One senses the generations plying the path that cuts behind these elder statesmen; the workers'' feet have made a scar in the earth as telling as the folds of roots and nodules of trunk. A keystone to the unspoken drama depicted is the series of dirt steps freshly cut into the rise next to the most prominent tree. Some resourceful person has made a shortcut from one level to the next. The human parade marches on.
Butler''s compositions draw us in and make us participants. This is the hallmark of the best art. In "Metal Gate and Wisteria, Ostuni" a series of time-ravaged arches abut a wrought iron gate. The vines have taken over as if this part of the estate had been forgotten. They climb up the rusticated walls, squeezing stones and burrowing into crannies; they traverse the arches triumphantly.
Foliage at the top of the picture and the dark path at the bottom seal the scene off from light, except for where it hits the back wall and arch. This breath of light is the protagonist in this drama, entering from stage right and touching the ancient stones, the rust of decorative gate, the worn path below the arches.
Lovers have met here, for their whispers still cling to the muted light as it bathes the scene. The lord of the manor has stopped here to take stock of a dubious life, and, later, his wife, looking for the maid, has peered through the gate at the hills beyond and wondered about her soldier son. And assassins, fixing their blades beneath tunic and cloak, have finalized their plans.
Butler has an uncanny ability to imply the human presence in scenes that speak of the past. In her pictures, the labor of ages has built walls stone by stone, tended trees and gardens, and constructed churches and villas with decorative detail. Her Italy is a place where people''s impulse to embellish is a constant. As the carvers of the head of Constantine in 300 did, so do the foundry workers in the Naples of her pictures. As the designers of Herculaneum and Pompeii enrich their world, so does the violin maker in Cremona. This presence of the past--and the continuity of the human drama that is suggested--is a wonderful thing to study in "Italy: In the Shadow of Time."
Italy: In the Shadow of Time shows through Oct. 26 at the Center for Photographic Art, Sunset Cultural Center, San Carlos and 8th, Carmel. 625-5181.