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Waves in Black and White

According to ecology theory, all systems have their macro- meso- and micro dimensions: with the ocean, the macro point of view is all about the horizon, the meeting of sea and sky; the meso view is more about the waves at breakpoint, the stuff of surfing heroics, what sightseers are drawn to hurricane-threatened beaches to see. On the micro level all of the little ebb-tides and eddies, splashes and wind slaps, toe lapping and leg pulling that happens inside each wave occur. In prior series, Sandra Gottlieb has focused her camera on the macro and meso dimensions of the ocean's simple rhythms: in the Black and White series, however, she zeroes in on the micro-creativity of waves crashing on the same stretch of Atlantic seaboard shore, cast in high relief by the setting sun. But, oddly, Gottlieb reports that while photographing waves for the Black and White series she was often approached by beachcombers and asked what she was taking pictures of. That is, most of the micro, minute, fleeting detail of wave action remains by and large invisible and under the radar of sunset watchers and wave sensationalists.

Gottlieb's pictures are conceptual in nature: Gottlieb captures moments that are structured to make the observer feel small, accept that one moment is quickly overtaken by another, or that some momentary phenomena remain beyond our reach, in terms of human perception. As such, Gottlieb appears to deconstruct even the snapshot aesthetic of classic modernists (though her "straight" photographs are verbatim records of the snap) and even Barthes' calculus of the singular punctum in a personally meaningful photograph does not seem enough: as there are so many puncta in nature, where does one begin to articulate meaning? Each Black and White image is structured to set the immediate moment at midrange, then frame it between past and future. Each photograph is the portrait of a wave, but another wave is always coming on, and the centerpiece "event," cast into high relief by the sun hitting the top and front of the wave, is breaking up almost before it is snapped. The possible combinations are endless: Gottlieb estimates that one in a hundred photos makes it to a final print. Altogether, extraction of such peak moments from the multitude of moments epitomizes the intensity of Gottlieb's aesthetic, the fruit of an ongoing, and even intimate relationship with the ocean.

In #2, for example, life's next wave immediately threatens the frontal wave's momentary pose, in # 25, the next wave is right on top of the main wave, while in #1 the current wave has already lost shape, leaving one waiting for the next to form. In #9 and # 10, the next wave is held off, lurking farther out to sea, but coming on. #3 and #4 are framed by the horizon, from this point of view signifying a daunting omigod thought of the endless procession of moments like this to come. In #22 the eye has followed a wave to shore, only to be hit by surprise by another one coming too quickly behind it, while #27 has sought relief in the continuous ripple of depleted waves creeping onto shore. Sometimes the ocean is calm, as in #30, at other times angry, #22. Sometimes the waves come into shore in an orderly sequence as in #10, at other times they splash up a where-did-that-come-from? jeu d'esprit of improv horizon break, #7. It almost looks like something is in the water in a similarly unpredictable #9. In # 8, textures of water in the wave are momentarily distinct, while in #10 and #11 waves as well as the loopy sudsing of the previous wave's ebb tide offer a different kind of place to rest one's mind in peace in. Gottlieb also often exploits high velocity wind as it wipes the spray off the top of a wave, both in #13 or #28, or, as in the case of waves in the wake of 2011's Hurricane Irene, tears a wave apart into a monstrous....something in the far water in #24, or simply manhandles the ocean with effortless brutality, #23. In #21, Irene's winds seem bent on actually tearing the ocean apart, or, Moses-like, turning it back. And only a straight-on buffet of a sudden gust can explain the amazing back-on-its-heels scattershot spray of #5. In all of this, one hears the ocean hiss ceaselessly: you cannot make this stuff up.

In the sheer variety of positionings, extensions into space, surfaces, variety of tones, in their intelligence, health and light, there is almost a Pythagorean soul quality to these allegories of the perfection of passing life itself (Robert Graves). I mention health because it strikes me that exposure to nature represents a meditative practice only if perception of its inexhaustible creativity (so simple in the macro, so amazingly meticulous in the micro) humbles the rational, processing mind and slows us down until we synchronize what some theorize is our natural mind, attune to nature's rhythms, the natural resource from which what Cziksentmihalyi calls "flow" originates. This is why wise beachgoers come away from a day there weary but strangely calm, drained and yet somehow massaged to serene wistfulness by what to others seems like the irritating monotony of the ocean. Melville, in the famous rhetorical flourish that opens Moby Dick, describes the "ocean reveries" of men gazing out to sea, and asks "What do they see here? " Later, again he asks, "did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration (my italics), when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?" and he answers his own question: what do we see in oceans? "It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life: and this is the key to it all." Without leaving her little turf of beachside reverie, it strikes me that Sandra Gottlieb would agree.

Robert Mahoney, writer - Art Critic, 2011

Cloud Studies 2015-16
» A Cloud Study, Sunset 2016
» Cloud Portraits 2016
» Cloud Perspective:
» Space, Mass and Mood 2015

October Waves 2013
» Nos. 1-30

Waves In Black and White 2011
» Nos. 1-30

Summer 2009
» Nos. 1-20
» Nos. 21-40

Winter 2009
» Nos. 1-12

Seascapes 1996 thru 2006
» Horizontals Nos. 1-20
» Verticals Nos. 1-20

City Tulips 2008
» Nos. 1-18

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