WINCHESTER — Alfred Lord Tennyson, rather overreacting to the idea of natural selection, famously wrote of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Four new shows at the Griffin Museum of Photography offer nature (lower case) serene, contemplative, or both, in black and white. They run through June 8.
For Dominic Chavez, nature is a window on the soul. “U-turn,” the title of the show, refers to his own relationship to photography. He writes that, as a teenager, first using a camera, “I tried to photograph trees as if they were people.” Chavez eventually became a prize-winning photojournalist. He worked at the Globe from 1997-2008. Individuals were what mattered in his images. Yet after years of covering global crisis and conflict, he noticed his interests changing. “Almost unconsciously I made a U-turn,” Chavez writes, “I found myself again drawn to places without people, as I was when I was a young man.”
The 31 black-and-white photographs in “U-turn” are good sized, 21 inches by 31.5 inches, but not overwhelming. Chavez wants to strike a balance between intimacy and grandeur, the specific and universal. His picture of Monument Valley is a standout not just because of its visual wit and dynamic composition but also its geographic specificity. As it is, many of the photographs flirt with quintessence, in the manner of a Bret Weston, or flirt with abstraction, a la Minor White.
As with White, there is clearly a spiritual element to these handsome images. How could there not be, when Chavez titles a landscape “Self Portrait”? But a sense of unmistakable, if muted, solidity keeps the photographs grounded. The titles contribute to that groundedness, perhaps more than is necessary. Calling an image of deeply furrowed ground “Wrinkles” is one thing, but “Belly Button” for a depression in a sand dune or “Group Hug” for an interlacing of evergreen branches gets a bit too cute for comfort.
The 23 photographs in Brian Alterio’s “Human Nature” focus on the visual congruence of floral forms and the human anatomy. They declare the superiority of curve to angle. Portrait-like images of lilies, peonies, and amaryllises alternate with up-close views of hands and torsos. The results are sedately voluptuous. It’s a hothouse vision, but one with restraint. The hothouse, you might say, has louvers.
Clyde Heppner’s “The Ancients’ Views” has as point of departure Chinese landscape painting. He took the 11 photographs of gardens in the city of Suzhou and the Huangshan Mountains. The images have unusual proportions, 18 inches by 9 inches or the reverse, giving them the look of embrasures. These embrasures, though, look from a monastery or temple, not a fortress. The narrowness protects from distraction rather than arrows. With his photographs, Heppner says, he hopes to attain what the Trappist monk Thomas Merton called “a direct grasp of the visible and the invisible.” That’s a pretty tall order, but one can see why these sites would tempt such a pursuit.
In her photographs, Kate Jordahl writes, “I strive to recognize and capture the spirit and power of place.” The images in “Crystal Day” display an arresting delicacy. A distant SUV becomes a smudge of magic, thanks to the halations of its headlights. A procession of newly leafed-out trees ascend a hill in such a way as to recall a life-affirming, arboreal version of the human participants in the Dance of Death at the end of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” The first rays of sunrise are visible behind another row of trees. Or are they the final rays of sunset? The difference is immaterial, since what Jordahl seeks is the eternal.