By Brian Goslow
WORCESTER, MA – As the crowds flowed in and out of the opening reception for the “Regarding Landscape: Armstrong and DiRado” exhibition at Worcester State University’s Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery, visitors discussed the process in which Frank Armstrong and Guggenheim fellow Stephen DiRado, longtime best friends and professional counterparts at Clark University, created their work. And while the show serves as the chance for them to shine together, one has to believe they also intended for the show to serve as a way of making those who’ve admired their work over the years — and those who discover it for the first time through this show — think about much more than the finished product and expand their engagement with the art of photography.
To help with the process, some of the work is displayed in both a smaller 8” x 10” format and the gigantic large format prints that fill most of the space. It gets your mind thinking about how differently you would think about taking a photograph if you knew it was going to be blown up for all to see each tint, tone and focus.
Armstrong has been photographing professionally for over a half-century years and driving the country’s back roads for the past 40. The show features some of his personal favorites from his portfolio. “There are no people here, no distractions from the hum of the rocks, trees, grass, and water that populate the scenery. Instead, Armstrong touches something of the eternal, abiding presence of the natural world, which he has isolated for our contemplation,” explains one of two introductions to the show on the gallery walls, which is as equally an unforgettable part of the show as the images for its role in not only setting the table for what the goal of the exhibition is, but the mindset of two of the country’s best photographers.
Meanwhile, DiRado’s work captures the land- and people-scapes of the “clothing-optional” Aquinnah cliffs and beach area of Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s been carrying — lugging might be a more correct description — his 8 x 10 view camera for the past 28 years; for this show, however, he changed his approach in which he would pursue a subject for years, if not decades, before declaring he had achieved the desired end result, with all but two of his works taken this past summer.
“I loved the fact that I had to produce new work, concentrating on landscape for this exhibition; curator Catherine Wilcox Titus committed Frank and myself to this exhibit well over a year ago,” DiRado explained. “In many ways it got me off the hook to work in a method I am accustomed; my daily drudge to the beach, patiently waiting for the right subjects to arrive throughout the summer, sometimes working six hour days with no results. This summer I was far more open to see the landscape anew.”
Unlike previous years, when people dominated the landscape, his new work celebrates landscape occupied by people. “Knowing this landscape all so well after 28 years of exploring every nuance of it, I was more than ready to take on the challenge,” DiRado said. “Researching art that would guide me, I found Edward Hopper’s sense of light and placement of subjects within the landscape to be a perfect match. Deliberately starting my day late in the afternoon, with the sun hanging low in the horizon, I migrated down Aquinnah Beach.
“Unlike in the past, I would set up my subjects for close ups, utilizing the elements of the beach simply as context. This summer I was drawn to the grand scale of a landscape. Pulling back from some subjects I have documented for decades, I now pull back, diminishing them in scale as they dot the landscape.”
In his photograph “Anne, Babu (dog) and David, Aquinnah, MA August 4, 2014,” DiRado noted that David is immersed in a pool of clay, thus integrated as part of the landscape; in the past, he most likely would have been front and centered. It’s one of the highlights of the exhibition.
It’s is a spectacular image for capturing that moment alone, but as usually is the case with DiRado’s images, there’s much more going on. There’s the topless women basking in the sun — her nakedness not the focus but the tone and shades of her body as it contrasts to the stripes of her towel and how a few feet away, enjoying the solace of the scene as much as the humans, a dog blends in with the sand, the sun’s shadow expanding its domain. While DiRado has the benefit of some of the world’s best land- and sea-scape to work with, and especially if you find yourself aching for the warmth of the summer scenes they capture, the real magic is recognize how the light he’s learned to master so well exposes, accentuates and glamorizes how many nooks and crannies the human body and the planet have to offer for us to appreciate.
(To learn more about DiRado’s years on the Vineyard, search out his self-made documentary DVD, “Summer Spent: The Struggle to Make Art in the Sand,” which is available through his website, http://www.stephendirado.com,or through ArtsWorcester, to which he’s donated all proceeds from the project.)
While DiRado benefits from his compiled knowledge in anticipating the light available for his shots on any given day, Armstrong is a master of the road, always in search of the next worthy image. And he’s rarely in a place long enough for a second take.
“Conway County, Arkansas 1986,” another of this show’s highlights, features a dirty road going between open fields and pastures — and a single horse. There normally aren’t a lot of living people or animals in Armstrong’s work and having driven millions of thousands of miles, the scene initially didn’t speak to him. Thankfully, he changed his mind.
“I saw it in a sideways glance as I drove by, pondered on it for about a quarter-mile before making a U-turn and heading back,” Armstong explained. “It was probably 5-7 minutes until I was parked on the side of the road and getting the camera out. I always make two exposure of every image because you never know if you are going to ruin one during processing. I saw the near horse on the first pass, and was somewhat surprised it was still there when I came back — and even more surprised it stood there while as if it hadn’t notice me. Funny, but I think the horse in the background was taking it all in.”
Armstrong said it takes him 10-15 minutes to set up an 8 x 10 view camera: “(I have to) set up the tripod, mount the camera, decide which lens and mount it, compose the image, focus, do an extensive measurement of the light, set the exposure (f/stop and shutter speed) to the lens, insert the film holder, pull the slide, and finally make the exposure. Pull film hold out, turn it around, and re-insert into the camera, pull the side, and made another exposure of the same scene. A good 20 minutes had probably passed by this time, and the horse was still standing there, but as if on cue, wandered off a few seconds after making that second exposure.”
He said he’s surprised, at times, but what appeals to him in the scene. In this instance, he said it was probably the road and how it intersects the total landscape. “Many of my images are put together somewhat subconsciously, and by that I mean, it just looks right,” Armstrong said. “That probably comes from looking at many, many images over the past 50+ years. It’s intuitive.”
It takes several viewings to fully appreciate what Armstrong has captured in his silver gelatin print, “U.S. Highway 191, Sublette County, Wyoming, 1985.” One may first be attracted to he heavy cloud cover that hangs over the open terrain, the mountains in the distance, or even focus on the five white poles jolting out from the surface. As you consider what Armstrong was aiming for with the shot — or subject of the image — you slowly begin to discover the barely visible wired connected to each of the poles — and bird sitting atop the one closest to you.
He said many people have asked him about the creation of that photo — and his other work — and what he looks for, the philosophy of his style and even gone out on the road with him hoping to learn his secrets. “Even when they’re looking into the viewer and think they see what I’m seeing, they’re not,” Armstrong said, “because I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with it in the darkroom.”
Armstrong, who recently turned 80, spent his birthday week on the back roads of Pennsylvania in search of new previously unseen and unphotographed artifacts of fading America. When I complimented him on an image he posted as one of his best, he responded that he had yet to take his best photograph. Based on the enormous collection of work he’s already created, any collector and lover of photography would do well following him at http://http://www.frankarmstrong.net/.
(“Regarding Landscape: Armstrong and DiRado” continues through December 11 at the Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery in the Ghosh Science and Technology Center, Worcester State University, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, Mass. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m. and Saturday from 1 p.m.–5 p.m. The campus will be closed for the Thanksgiving break from November 26-29. For more information, call (508) 929-8145.)