In ‘Hymn,’ seeking a beauty beyond beauty
WORCESTER - Black-and-white photography carries three associations. It’s generally considered more real, more serious, and more artistic. Serious and artistic are inherently subjective qualities. Ee-ther/eye-ther, serious/artistic, let’s call the whole thing off. Real, though, is hardly subjective. Viewed in objective terms, color is far more real than black and white is - if only because color is such a defining element of reality as experienced by the human eye.
It’s fitting, then, that the 42 images that make up “Hymn to the Earth: Photographs by Ron Rosenstock’’ are in black and white. The show runs at the Worcester Art Museum through March 18.
The effect Rosenstock strives for in these pictures, mostly taken in rural Ireland but also in places as diverse (and beautiful) as Italy and Maine, Morocco and New Zealand, is of a higher, purer reality. You could almost describe it as a kind of unreality, given that exaltation and ineffability are forms of reality so rare as hardly to qualify as real.
That Rosenstock achieves his aim so often is as much a tribute to the depth of emotion he brings to his work as it is to exacting technique. Seeing for him becomes a form of feeling - and maybe even thinking. In that regard, he resembles Minor White and Paul Caponigro, both of whom he studied with.
Seeing becomes, in fact, a variety of religious experience. It’s not an accident that several spiritual sites are among Rosenstock’s subjects, though the presence of an abbey or monastery or tomb is, in a sense, redundant. There’s such a sense of the divine implicit in the style. Although Rosenstock’s most characteristic work is landscape, what may be the thematic epitome of the show is an interior. “Congregational Church, Holden, Massachusetts’’ is less light and religion than light as religion.
Rosenstock’s images manage to be both chaste and spectacular. That’s an impressive pair of qualities, impressive not least of all in how vast is the gulf that usually separates them. There’s a beauty beyond beauty in so many of these images. But so much in between gets left out. It’s telling that a person appears in only one of the photographs. Another one includes a horse. That’s it for flesh and blood. In both cases, it’s so startling to see a living creature - and then further startling to realize it’s so startling. Their presence makes you realize how often these photographs convey an under-glass quality.
The exceptions underscore this. A photograph of the roof of the Duomo, in Milan (another religious site), reveals a spindly, witty beauty. An array of thin stone pinnacles looks like religious stalagmites, which makes the cathedral top akin to a roofless cave. The image is striking and funny (in both senses of the word) and refreshingly uncategorizable.
Or there’s the matter of cloth, both figurative and literal. Rosenstock has been going to Ireland for 40 years now. His connection to the place is so palpable in these images that he’s surely earned the right to start calling himself O’Rosenstock. In one of his Irish landscapes, “Sheeffry Wood, County Mayo, Ireland,’’ the moss covering the trees is so luxuriant it could be fabric.
That’s the figurative cloth. The literal comes in “Monks’ Robes, Saint Antimo Abbey, Montalcino, Tuscany.’’ Three white robes hang on hooks on a dark wall. Nothing could be less mannered or more plain. Such plainness comes as something of a relief, frankly. There’s a charm and sense of mystery to this image unlike any other in the show. In the thick folds of the monks’ homely attire there resides such a sense of humanity, of lives lived. So many of the other photographs in “Hymn to the Earth’’ have the effect of making you want to step back, slightly awed. With “Monks’ Robes,’’ there’s a religious impulse, too, though it’s much more mundane. The urge is to get closer, to try to touch the hem of these garments.