It’s a photography show, except the photographer didn’t take the pictures.
Serving as artist-in-residence at Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center over the last year, Alyssa Salomon collaborated with Rice’s director of environmental outreach, biologist Anne Wright, to capture the diversity of the ecosystems of the Central Virginia section of the James River watershed.
Using a basic hunter’s camera — a cheap, compact digital infrared camera with motion sensors that take night-vision stills — Wright’s goal was to record animals such as deer, coyotes and feral cats inhabiting the region.
Salomon, contemplating the component of chance, saw the possibility for more.
“Animal Land” at Candela Gallery shows how Salomon took the science of Wright’s images and re-imagined them as art. The work is a smooth combination of technology and the alternative — or antique — methods Salomon favors.
Using a 19th century printing style called the Van Dyke process, Salomon uses a computer to create low-resolution negatives the size of the print that she wants on handmade, light-sensitive paper. Detail and clarity are not the point.
“It’s like why you might prefer an electric guitar with a fuzz pedal to a cello,” Salomon says. “The process creates the mood, voice and emotional charge of the image.”
The printmaking process — and what happened during it — was her driving interest. “I worked with each one to make an image that was going to have a song to it,” she says. “You can’t hold up one of these and say, ‘This is the truth’ — yet it is. It’s a perceived truth.”
Not satisfied with only the images taken at Rice Rivers Center, she also set up a camera in her own backyard in rural Providence Forge. She captured a photo of a coyote that her octogenarian neighbors swore that they’d heard howling. There had been stories about coyotes years ago, but everyone had assumed they were a myth. Here was proof.
Sometimes the motion sensor trips the camera, but nothing shows except for trees, shrubbery and grass. Other times, it’s just an eerie pair of eyes. “You’re left with a stage,” says Salomon. “It becomes a landscape that speaks to its occupants but doesn’t contain them. It reads like a drawing.”
The show’s pieces convey a strong sense of intrusion, of viewers seeing things in the vast animal world that usually stay hidden from humans. Salomon sees the Van Dyke process as ideal for such a scenario because it delivers a watercolor look and impressionistic feel rather than crisp photorealism.
She thinks of it as romantic — with a capital R — in the mode of Wordsworth, who saw beauty infused with dread and awe. “Beauty is out of vogue right now, but I want to insert beauty into the world,” she says. “Anne and I are saying: ‘Look, this is right here.’ We’re hoping by showing it that we’re tapping into the human desire to protect it.”
Candela Books and Gallery owner and photographer Gordon Stettinius agrees. “This body of work appeals to me because of Alyssa’s unapologetic search for romantic beauty while she manages to bring contemporary issues into the discussion,” he says. “The entire process, from concept to execution, begets a tension beneath the warm surface of the images.”
Salomon’s energy is in printmaking: A Warhol-like series of four prints of a deer, each in a different color tone, establishes that the way the images were made becomes what the images are. But they’re also a testament to the abundance of wildlife in the highly populated East Coast corridor — and the Richmond region in particular. As modern as our infrastructure feels, the photographic evidence proves that we’re merely living in the habitat of animals. It’s a parallel universe that threads invisibly through ours.
“Forty years ago, Richmond was facing its own ‘Silent Spring,’” she says, referring to Rachel Carson’s landmark book on the environment. “The river was closed for 13 years and species were vanishing. Now they’re coming back. They’re insisting on coming back, as long as we stop doing the worst. I could have easily called this show ‘Insistent Beauty.’” S
“Animal Land” runs through June 24 at Candela Books and Gallery at 214 W. Broad St., candelabooks.com.