Photography is science masquerading as magic — or is it the other way around? Anyone using a cellphone camera is likely to hold with science. Anyone who’s seen an image emerge in a darkroom surely votes for magic. Among the many virtues of “The Doors of Perception: Vision and Innovation in Alternative Processes” (terseness of title isn’t among them) is how the show is equally forthright in implicitly raising the question — and then declining to answer it.
The exhibition, curated by Francine Weiss, runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through March 23. It consists of work from seven photographers. All of them use unusual photographic formats — or, and this is an important distinction, formats that now seem unusual. Daguerreotypes and tintypes and platinum and palladium prints were once far more common, or even the norm. That’s why “alternative” figures in the subtitle. But the fact that these processes are unusual now makes the images made with them seem unusual, too, sometimes to the point of seeming, again per the subtitle, visionary and/or innovative.
Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman’s five images are very large, 3 feet by 4 feet, and, in a sense, very old. They were taken quite recently, in 2010. But they might be said to go back to the very beginnings of photography, both in place and time. That place is Lacock Abbey, where William Henry Fox Talbot made photographs in the 1830s and ’40s with “the pencil of nature,” as he called his photogenic drawing process, whch is the photographic procedure the Ostermans employ. The images they capture are diffuse, romantic, atmospheric. All photographs are portals to the past, or at least a specific moment in the past. These pictures feel like emanations from it.
Gretjen Helene’s five pieces in “Door of Perception” feel like . . . well, it’s hard to say. Which is a compliment. She takes a small pedestal, puts a handsomely carved wooden box on it, places a partially opened duck shell within the box, and then paints a liquid emulsion image inside the shell. The overall effect is exquisite, odd, and arresting. One inevitably thinks of Joseph Cornell’s boxes.
Ron Cowie’s seven pictures here are beautiful. They have the lustrousness one expects of platinum and palladium prints. What one doesn’t expect is how he infuses the images with such a strong spiritual sense. In “Ulysses,” from his “Leaving Babylon” series, waving grasses in the foreground and saltbox shack in the background lie beneath lowering skies. The juxtaposition suggests somehow an uncanny immanence.
During the antebellum era, the tintype was the most popular photographic format for portraits. And since Scott McMahon is visible in the four tintypes (and one ambrotype) in the show, one tries to read them as portraits. Except that they’re not, since he appears in the background or in some way concealed. This creates an intriguing sense of displacement: What’s what and who’s who are reasonably plain. The linkage between them — the how and why — isn’t.
Like tintypes, daguerreotypes are usually thought of in terms of 19th-century portraiture. Well, isn’t a cityscape an urban portrait? Jerry Spagnoli has four daguerreotypes of New York. They have a solidity that befits the metropolitan mass of their subject. Each bears the name “Survey of the Twentieth Century.” That is one seriously imposing title, both in itself and with its allusion to the greatest of all photography projects, August Sander’s “People of the Twentieth Century.”
Perhaps another way of posing the science/magic duality of photography is to ask if it’s more reflection of external reality (science) or creator of a reality all its own. Jesseca Ferguson’s “Museum of Memory” series unquestionably belongs to the all-its-own camp. At once Lewis Carroll and Alice, she creates a private wonderland. She employs devices as diverse as books and furniture (solid, three-dimensional books and furniture) and a wide range of photographic processes: cyanotypes, pinhole cameras, and, in one case, a Polaroid negative and Epson printer. There’s a pleasingly obsessive quality to these images. They’re both inviting and inscrutable, like poetry recited in an unknown language.