While Mary Lang’s latest exhibition at SoWa’s Kingston Gallery, “Here, nowhere else,” could have featured a strong collection of images from her travels to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California and the isles and highlands of Scotland, she decided to also include more localized works that seem to hold personal importance to the Auburndale, Massachusetts-based photographer. The show serves as a valuable exercise at a time we’re asking ourselves, more and more in the Instagram age, what makes a great photo — and a great photographer.
“I struggled with whether I could build a show out of such disparate images, and vaguely considered showing the travel ones — Anza-Borrego and Scotland — in the main gallery and putting the backyards in the center gallery, but in the end, I rejected that,” Lang said. “I wanted to show that there is a through thread which links all of our experiences, like beads on a string, and that there is an equivalency to majestic landscapes and ordinary backyards if they are perceived in the same way, with the same freshness.”
The viewer is challenged to see the importance of Lang’s images such as “Soccer net and backyards, late summer, Auburndale, MA” and “Dusk, late summer, my backyard, Auburndale,” everyday scenes that we may not miss until they’re gone — or they’re our own.
“It is the quality of the space itself which stops my mind almost every time I look at it,” she said. “I have photographed the basic ‘landscape’ of the soccer net and backyards at least 100 times over the years. There is something about the open space and the forms and elements — the net, the ball, the swing set, the slide in the further, hidden yard, that all combine to stop time for me, like a kaleidoscope. After years and years of taking basically the same picture, one time the elements all fell into place — the time of day, the light, the color, the shadow.”
Of “Dusk, late summer, my backyard, Auburndale,” she said, “that’s the scene that I look out on in the mornings, pondering the sadness of the world we are living in. And, even though it’s an iPhone photo, and not as sharp as the Fuji-XT100 ones, it is so beautiful, and so complete within itself. I was showing the work to someone who commented that he feels the same way about his own backyard. You travel to all these places but really, one’s home is just as beautiful.”
Lang said that these “ordinary images” are also invitations to the viewer to slow down and really look at what’s around them. “If I can capture someone’s attention with the more dramatic images, maybe they will give me the benefit of the doubt and look harder at the quotidian ones.”
Lang had planned to visit Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California last winter, but it was closed due to the government shutdown at the time; instead, her and her husband spent a week in a rented camper van at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County. “It was a complete surprise,” she explained. “We had no idea what it would be like, and were blown away with the landscape and the desolation — there is nothing like camping in the desert in January.
“Fog turned out to be her major assistant in the images she made there. It moves through the scenes, passing behind leafless bushes in “Borrego Springs Campground” and in front of a mountain in “Early morning fog.” Lang said that she is drawn to the fog because it makes the landscapes softer and more indeterminate and evokes some uncertainty. “In a simple way, it makes them more mystical. I am also very much a morning person, so if one is up at 5 a.m., one is likely to be able to photograph fog.”
Her pictures of the Scottish Highlands and Isles are equally stunning. “Looking back from the Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye, Scotland,” 2017, holds that metallic sky reflection off the water thought synonymous with the ocean surrounding Provincetown and Truro; the clean shapes of the water and mountains look as if they could have been cut out of wood. It was not a planned shot.
“It was mostly good timing, since the weather and light and conditions in Scotland change minute by minute,” Lang said. “I have always disciplined myself, and used to teach my students to occasionally turn around and look behind you when you are out photographing. We are so directionally oriented — looking ahead, never behind — that we miss a lot.”
After exploring a career in law, Lang decided to become a photographer, studying at Pratt Institute in New York City with Arthur Free and Philip Perkis. “Phil was very much a mentor, as he had mastered a similar sensibility, and he also was engaged in a spiritual path (Gurdjieff) which I believe comes through in his work,” said Lang, who along with being a photographer, she teaches meditation and Shambhala Buddhism at the Boston Shambhala Center in Brookline.
Which brings us back to living in the moment. In “Spider web, Rail Trail between Northampton and Hadley, MA,” 2018, Lang benefits from the timeliness of having a light fog rising over the Connecticut River and the backdrop of tree and their reflection as a canvas to capture the perfect spider web photograph we’ve all aimed for.
“Many many people were on the rail trail that morning, and those spider webs were all along the train bridge,” Lang said, “and everyone couldn’t stop taking pictures. But my photograph makes one feel like it is just you, the viewer, held in the tenuousness of that web, with the tiny droplets illuminated each by each, becoming more and more invisible as they stretch across the space, with the mystical indeterminate land in the distance. That one in particular still stops my mind every time I look at it.”
After seeing Lang’s collection of photographs, viewers will see the world around them a little bit differently and a lot more clearly.