Theater & art

Photography review

Amy Arbus: when camera collides with canvas

Above: “David After Blind Man” from Amy Arbus’s series of photographs after paintings at the Griffin Museum of Photography. (“The Blind Man’s Meal,” Picasso,1903.)
Above: “David After Blind Man” from Amy Arbus’s series of photographs after paintings at the Griffin Museum of Photography. (“The Blind Man’s Meal,” Picasso,1903.)

WINCHESTER — During the ’80s, Amy Arbus had a weekly feature, On the Street, in The Village Voice. She’d photograph some particularly exotic- or stylish-looking New Yorker encountered on a Manhattan sidewalk. The photographs in “After Images” might be seen as an extension of those poses struck and roles played. Except this would be called On the Wall: The poses struck and roles played are ones found in famous paintings by the likes of Picasso, Balthus, Modigliani, and Courbet.

“After Images” runs through June 2 at the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester, as do two other shows: Stephan Sagmiller’s “The Clouds: Experiments in Perception” and Elin Hoyland’s “The Brothers.”

These are photographs, but they look quite unnervingly like the original paintings. To achieve that effect, Arbus applied paint to her models’ skin and clothes, as well as backgrounds and objects within the frame, and exactingly lit her subjects to imitate the appearance of the canvases.


The appeal for Arbus of doing this would seem to be twofold. This body of work involves a number of things that intrigue her, she says, such as “truth and illusion, costume, unlikely contexts, time travel, drama and transformation.” In addition, doing these photographs gave her a rare sense of connection with the original works. “It would be foolish to think I could compete with the masters,” she says, “but I wanted to get into bed with them in the sense of having an excuse to get totally immersed in their work.”

“The Brothers” from Elin Hoyland’s series of images of elderly Norwegian farmers and loggers.
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In “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot describes “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.” That is what Arbus is doing here, though with sight substituted for sound. She’s uniquely immersing herself in these paintings she loves, by painters she reveres. From the creator’s point of view, it all makes sense. From the viewer’s point of view, or at least this viewer’s, it feels very different. The photographs seem like a stunt, at best; and when they don’t look kitschy it’s only because they appear goofy. Homage is clearly the intent, but mimicry is the result.

As art museums are to natural history museums, so is Arbus’s series to Stephan Sagmiller’s “The Clouds: Experiments in Perception.” It, too, dwells on the relationship between illusion and reality, photograph and painting. Sagmiller has taken photographs of clouds and photographs of diorama paintings. It’s a credit to both the diorama artists and Sagmiller that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can tell the difference, it’s because of wear and tear in the paint. A telltale missing splotch in “1356 (Losses),” for example, is both melancholy and amusing.

Harald and Mathias Ramen, Elin Hoyland’s subjects in “The Brothers,” are elderly Norwegian farmers and loggers. The camera feasts on their craggy faces, unbent physiques, and fierce, ferny eyebrows. They recall another pair of old agricultural brothers, the Welsh twins in Bruce Chatwin’s novel “On the Black Hill.” Hoyland’s black-and-white photographs are a model of tact and sympathy without ever descending into sentiment. It’s hard to get sentimental about old men posing for the camera shirtless, as the Ramens sometimes do. They’re exposing their lives to Hoyland. So why not expose their torsos, too?

Mark Feeney can be reached at