Of memory and reflection

Photographers Benjamin Porter, Eric Baden and Larry White met more than 20 years ago at the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, N.Y., where they learned their craft. Silver to Blue, a current exhibit of their black-and-white photographs, celebrates their friendship, which began in that region’s Silver Mountains and still thrives, today, in the Blue Ridge.

Porter’s stunning panoramas (some of them six feet long) portray his interest in documenting historical and ritualistic events, both locally and internationally. The artist’s use of an antique panoramic camera called the Cirkut began as part of a historical project in which he re-photographed local people and places that had previously been captured by Herbert W. Pelton, an early-20th-century Asheville photographer. Porter later chased his own vision with the Cirkut camera, and declares, “I was completely seduced by the contact print, which is very beautiful, and the detail and luscious tones. The work has taken off on a life of its own.”

One hallmark of Porter’s work is his unconventional application of the Cirkut, which was ordinarily used to photograph large groups of people and scenery. He explains: “The panoramas in this exhibition represent my desire to push the Cirkut camera in a direction for which it was not designed. I am interested in the contradiction of using such a slow camera to study movement and time as a continuum.” Consequently, many of his panoramas show large gatherings of people engaged in some activity — but also reveal Porter’s urge to immerse himself in the action. In “Goombay Festival,” many people mill about, some of them out of focus; this blurred reality is a lively departure from an ordinary photograph, which appears frozen in the past.

Porter’s interest in what he calls “what’s happening beyond the edges of the frame — all the fun, weird stuff going on that we don’t normally get” also trumpets time as a continuum. In “Billy Graham Dedicates the Billy Graham Freeway,” for example, the edges of the image reveal the possibility of a marked difference between the event’s invited and uninvited attendees. While the former sit demurely in a roped-off area in front of Graham, the latter are shown as a small, anxious crowd kept at bay by a policeman and his bicycle. This shot — as well as “Tour DuPont,” “World Livestock Auctioneer Championship Finalists” (pictured on the next page) and “Drivers at the Last Race, Asheville Motor Speedway” — epitomizes the artist’s passionate mission to memorialize local history as it happens.

When he’s not capturing the movement of large gatherings, Porter responds to the serendipity of an alluring moment, such as the spectacular grandeur of a military park in “Odessa” or the haunting beauty of a Bolivian landscape in “Country Club.” (Porter’s camera has enabled him to travel extensively.) In the latter work, a sculpted garden cast in late-afternoon light provides wonderful contrast to the background’s cool, stark mountains and light sky. In another Bolivian image — “Fiesta of Urkupina” — Porter highlights one of that country’s most important religious festivals. Here, people are shown purposefully roaming on and around a group of rocks: “They are actually breaking off rocks,” says the photographer, explaining, “the bigger the rock, the more wealth they will have the next year. It represents their desire for abundance.”

Whether bent on capturing international flavor or local color, Porter brings to his work a uniformity of intelligence, clarity and vision.

In contrast with Porter’s crowd scenes, Eric Baden’s images esteem the individual: “To me, everybody is interesting,” he says simply. Establishing social contact with his subject is of utmost importance to Baden; his efforts shine in large black-and-white portraits of family, friends and local characters such as artists, musicians and street people. The artist declares that his vision is about “a look in the eye,” which he defines as capturing both the instantaneous and reciprocal rapport between photographer and sitter. In the resulting portraits, the artist’s minimalist aesthetic favors the communication of human intimacy: “By working closely, I want to eliminate as much context as possible. We don’t need to know their history — there’s an immediacy that reflects the moment,” he notes.

From the serenity of his young daughter (shown in a bathtub, illuminated by shimmering light) in “Saskia” to the pathos of “Fred,” the inner spirit of Baden’s subjects is emotionally reflected. Many of the artist’s unpretentious sitters seem rooted in the hardships of everyday life.

Using a square format, Baden’s spare aesthetic also includes a shallow depth of field. The latter trait allows for more precise detail, often drawing the viewer directly into the photographs. The focus of “Kathie,” for example, is the large tattoo on the subject’s arm, while in “Ellison,” Baden has chosen to obscure the subject’s mouth and capture the story in his eyes. In viewing “Jessie,” one is lured immediately to the subject’s nose ring, while “Johnny” honors that elderly man’s weathered face, large white hat and alarmingly stubby fingers. In all his works, Baden eradicates bias, presenting his subjects exactly as they are.

Larry White’s work pays tribute to a phase of his life when he enjoyed what he refers to as “ready-made subjects.” This series of contemplative images is a narrative of family and friends relishing the beach and its environs on Topsail Island, N.C. Since White and his family have become regulars at Topsail, the artist envisions creating a larger body of work (titled “The Topsail Island Series”) which will record the growth of his family. The current photographs feature White’s wife, Heidi, and their three children — Quinn, Asa and Stella. Cast in soft light, these images concentrate on formal aspects of photography such as form and line. And rather than posing people, White portrays his subjects in their naturalness, either at play or in quiet contemplation.

“I consider myself a discoverer. I’d rather see a moment and try to capture it than make a picture,” he proclaims.

Time, in these simple portraits, has been deliberately slowed down — making way for poetic moments and thoughtful imagery. Subjects are found wading in tide pools, playing at the water’s edge, and stringing beans on the porch of a beach house. But White also displays the formidable nature of the ocean, showing his subjects swimming neck- and chest-deep in its inexorable tides. In “Sunset at the Point,” the photographer traps the timeless image of a dying sun in the last moments of a day at the beach. In this beautifully introspective shot, three small children extend their day of play, frolicking in tide pools. A woman — her back toward the viewer –accompanies them, a print towel wrapped around her waist and a loose shirt falling just off her shoulder, revealing the strap of her bathing suit.

The universal theme of a mother’s concern for her child is softly evident in “John and Nancy.” Here, a woman sits on a white bedspread, looking away from the viewer at her young boy, who plays beside her in the sand. The woman’s left arm, extended on the bedspread, supports the weight of her body, while her free arm and hand delicately drape her waist. The form and line of the subjects’ bodies and the boy’s bathing suit create a wonderfully balanced composition, while the overcast day lends an overall muted quality to the already-poetic image.

“Quinn,” a portrait of White’s 9-year-old son, honors the young boy’s beautiful, tanned form as he stands bare-chested in a doorway. The image epitomizes the complexities of boyhood, as well as some of its conspicuous regalia (a spy kit hangs importantly from Quinn’s belt loops). His hands firmly anchored in his pockets, Quinn looks serious and perplexed as he gazes at the photographer, not altogether sure about this interrogation.

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