As a molecule, water is breathtakingly simple. Combine two atoms of hydrogen with one of oxygen. That’s it, and good to the last drop.
As a substance, water is breathtakingly various. It can take the form of snow, mist, clouds, glaciers, icebergs, desert springs and groundwater, rivers, rivulets, ponds, oceans, seas. All of these appear in the several shows currently up at Bridge Gallery, in Cambridge, and the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester. One of the Griffin shows even incorporates Judkins Pond, behind the museum.
Evgenia Arbugaeva grew up in Siberia, and what the whiteness of the whale was for Herman Melville the whiteness of snow is for her. It provides an arresting visual ostinato throughout her dozen color photographs in “Disappearing Worlds: The Photographs of Evgenia Arbugaeva and Natela Grigalashvili,” which runs at Bridge through Oct. 14.
The photographs are from her series “Tiksi.” Tiksi is Arbugaeva’s hometown, a small port on the Arctic Ocean. Snow figures in nearly all the images. The blanketing white contrasts with the subdued colors seen elsewhere in the photographs.
Arbugaeva asked gallery owner Greig Cranna to show the photographs in white frames, adding to the prevailing whiteness. The handsome deep gray that Cranna has painted the walls further accentuates the prevalence. Without the whiteness, the colors would look washed out. Instead, the contrast gives them the delicacy and appeal of pastels — except for the photograph that shows the northern lights. Now those colors are anything but subdued.
Natela Grigalashvili is from Georgia, the one in the Caucasus. Her nine photographs face Arbugaeva’s, as if having a post-Soviet conversation. They’re from Grigalashvili’s series “The Final Days of Georgian Nomads.” Where Arbugaeva’s present a snowbound contemporaneity, Grigalashvili’s have a timeless quality. Enhancing that effect is the mist found in five of the images. What we see is at once magical and matter of fact.
The six shows and one video that make up the Griffin’s “Ceding Ground” look at climate change, doing so primarily through the lens of the water cycle. Sometimes that lens can be very large. Three of Camille Seaman’s eight photographs of the Arctic and Antarctic are more than 8 feet by 6 feet. To call them stunning would be a stunning understatement. Yet powerful as they are, they can’t match the emotional impact of Seaman’s much smaller image of a penguin skeleton. It’s a “mere” 16 inches by 24 inches.
Water, in various forms, defines “Ceding Ground,” but death and destruction, or the threat of them, are a near constant. With his “Cracks in the Ice” project, Jason Lindsey conveys destruction in a highly distinctive manner that’s literal as well as figurative. Lindsey has taken slides of glaciers, broken them up, and photographed the results. Earth art meets Cubism, courtesy of Lindsey’s camera.
Startling as Lindsey’s shards are, they may be less so than the easily overlooked presence of chicken-wire fencing in Bremner Benedict’s photograph of a pool in the Sonoran Desert. It’s there for a good reason, to protect the grasses behind it. But it seems like such an intrusion on the landscape. Unframed and unmatted, these nine photographs of springs in the desert Southwest have a fineness of color and texture that underscores their subjects’ fragility.
Their desert settings make the rippling waters seen in Amber Crabbe’s video “I Dreamed We Could Stand Still” all the more appealing. These up-close views of water passing over sand, soil, and stone, or bubbling and steaming from hot springs, testify to the eloquence of ripples, and have a real depth of feeling.
The depth of feeling in Ellen Konar & Steve Goldband’s “Cut Short” is beyond doubt. But the nature of the 13 black-and-white photographs, which show cross-sections of felled redwoods seen against a black background, works against expressivity. The presentation of the cross-sections is almost clinical, which brings out the variation among them all the more, while also emphasizing that clinical quality in a way that one suspects the photographers didn’t intend.
Ville Kansanen is the artist who makes use of Judkins Pond, with an installation of tiles that extend from the museum to the pond. Made of earth from the Mojave Desert, they’re meant to represent soil salination, Kansanen says, though this isn’t readily apparent. Also on display are a series of large and attractive color photographs, from his “Airut Harbinger” series. Each shows “a makeshift tripod,” as Kansanen describes it, with a stone hanging from it. It functions, he says, “as a mystical instrument for measuring water levels.” This does seem to put an undue burden of meaning on the item.
Simon Norfolk is represented by two series, “Shroud” and “When I Am Laid in Earth.” Both are striking in appearance and unsettling in meaning, though only one is unsettling in quite the way Norfolk presumably wants.
For four generations, a Swiss family has earned a living by selling tickets to enter an ice grotto in the side of a glacier. To protect the attraction against rising temperatures, the family has fashioned a covering for it: a shroud. Shroud, of course, has a mortuary association. Norfolk’s photographs of it don’t belabor the point, though the angle from which he took one of them, “Shroud 8,” gives the covering an outline that looks like nothing so much as sharky jaws.
“Laid in Earth” shows the recession of the Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya. Each photographic title includes two dates. The later was when Norfolk took the picture. That shows the current extent of the glacier. The earlier date denotes how far the glacier then extended. How Norfolk indicates that extent is a visual tour de force: with a line of flames. Yes, ice and fire. It’s a bravura effect. To achieve it, Norfolk ignites petroleum. In the larger context of climate change, the contribution those fires make to warming is trivial. But the act remains troubling. As the anonymous US officer is supposed to have said during the Vietnam War, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Norfolk’s photographs, Seaman’s, Lindsey’s, and Benedict’s are all hung in Griffin’s main gallery, often interspersed. At first this is confusing, until you realize that a larger, holistic point is being made. Glaciers and desert springs, the polar regions and Africa: It’s all one planet, our planet and it’s all one crisis, which is our crisis, too.
DISAPPEARING WORLDS: The Photographs of Evgenia Arbugaeva and Natela Grigalashvili
At Bridge Gallery, 5 Pemberton St., Cambridge, through Oct. 14. 617-930-3418, bridge.photos
Camille Seaman: Melting Away: A Penguins Life
Jason Lindsey: Cracks in the Ice
Bremner Benedict: Hidden Waters
Amber Crabbe: I Dreamed We Could Stand Still
Steve Goldband & Ellen Konar: Cut Short
Ville Kansanen: Arid Harbingers
Simon Norfolk: When I Am Laid in Earth & Shroud
At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through Oct. 15. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.