Thursday, April 18, 2024

Art Review: “Imaging Eden” at the Norton

The subtitle of the Norton Museum’s new exhibition “Imaging Eden” reads “Photographers Discover the Everglades.” Discover? Really? Hadn’t this natural wonder of the world, which spreads across two-thirds of Florida and dates back 15,000 years, been pretty well discovered long before the invention of photography?

Actually, no. In fact, the Everglades were not been systematically imaged until well into the 20th century, according to Norton Photography Curator Tim Wride. Which means that this verdant phantasmagoria of native flora and fauna lived mostly in imaginations and recollections, not all of them accurate. Wride calls the Everglades “one of the most misunderstood landscapes in the nation,” a theory he hopes to rectify with “Imaging Eden.” The exhibition’s purpose is twofold: To showcase Everglades imagery of the last century and to challenge photographers of this century to re-imagine the River of Glass.

The first part of the exhibit surveys existing Everglades photos dating back to 1898, most of them shot in evocative black-and-white, even after color printing became commonplace. Back in the ‘50s, Mary Peck shot the Everglades as both a desolate coastline and an endless tangle of plant life—widescreen panoramas that serve as fragments of a vast ecosystem, each image the equivalent of a hair on the pimple of an elephant. Clyde Butcher saw beauty in the skies above the River of Grass, focusing on anthropomorphized clouds on moonlit nights, and Eliot Porter captured the ‘Glades in a micro sense: extreme close-ups of fig roots and saw palmetto, egrets and herons.

Daring to shoot this timeless world in color, Porter’s “Cypress Slough and Mist” appears positively otherworldly, an alien forest tinted with a medical green. For her contribution, Marion Post Wolcott focused not on the place itself but its human inhabitants—namely the migrant workers living in squalor—thus assigning class-consciousness to her documentary reportage.

These are the standard-bearers of Everglades images, the ones who laid the groundwork for the mental vista that springs forward when we hear the word “Everglades.” But the deeper you wade into “Imaging Eden,” the more wild and unpredictable the place, and its interpreters, become. The show’s final gallery is also its most exciting, composed of recent Everglades photography, including the work of four photographers commissioned by Wride to film the ‘Glades in a new way.

Jerry Burchfield’s camera-less “photography” is the most unique and formally daring. He placed specimens from the River of Grass on light-sensitive paper and left them out in the sun, where the chemical reaction created sepia-like images of saw palmetto, slash pines and more. His poison ivy image is the most chilling, because, through Burchfield’s process, the ivy looks very much like a cancer invading an otherwise healthy species.

Other photographers took a more photojournalistic approach. Adam Nadel brings us “backstage” Everglades National Park by revealing the control rooms, pumps, and perfectly grizzled pump station operators whose efforts continue to breathe life into the River. Bryan Wilson’s photos, textiles, documents and other ephemera reflect on the time he embedded himself with the “Swamp Apes,” a group of ex-military men who volunteer their time to protect the Everglades, especially from its invasive python epidemic. And James Balog’s works draw their effectiveness from their size: His hyperreal, large-scale photographs of brown pelicans, turtles and Florida panthers are inescapable reminders of species we risk losing, should overdevelopment continue.

Still other artists take more experimental approaches. Gerald Slota’s “Second and Third Seminole Wars” is a staggering, perplexing multimedia work—a wall-sized assemblage of collages within collages that includes gun barrels and tribal faces, some of them with eyes removed. I’ve rarely been so disturbed by a work I didn’t fully understand. The exhibition winds down with Jim Goldberg and Jordan Stein’s eclectic installation, titled simply “Everglades,” which includes time-lapse photography, an inscribed blade lodged in cinderblock and even a canoe suspended upside-down from the ceiling.

Not surprisingly, most of the artists hail from the U.S., but not all of them brought new approaches to Everglades photography. Lisa Elmaleh’s black-and-white Everglades images, processed using 19th century technology, too obviously recall the work of Walker Evans and Ansel Adams; her work is so influenced by others that it seems superfluous next to the pioneering ‘Glades photography in the next room.

My favorite images in the show were the works contributed by artists outside the country, who, perhaps by their nature as foreigners, were able to see a region we take for granted as a truly exotic, mystical place. These include Dara Levy’s video of the Everglades at night—with rain spattering the foliage in trippy slow-motion, and blue and red light showering new mystery on the nocturnal wetlands—and especially Jungjin Lee’s Everglades series. Her shots are black-and-white too, but in a new way—the images are filmy, painterly and almost out-of-focus, with the artist taking inspiration from the views of birds and snakes. She centers one image on a poetically crooked tree, another on a single godlike cloud, another on a precise pattern of trees.

Each image has a beautiful simplicity to it, lacking the busy, teeming tangle of life that many Everglades photographers before her have captured. It’s still the Everglades, just a little more peaceful and Zen. It is a genuine act of discovery.

“Imaging Eden” runs through July 12 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $5-$12. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.

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