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Not Your Mother's Snapshots
Ian Bornarth at Hart Gallery


By Paul Dorn
Davis Enterprise art critic

Art review
Ian Bornarth, Nature Photography
Where: Hart Gallery
714 2nd Street, Davis; 758-2424
When: through Feb. 7
Hours: 10 am - 5:30 pm, Tuesday through Saturday
Closed Sunday and Monday

The esteemed photographer and essayist Robert Adams once suggested that landscape photography should reveal three truths: geography, autobiography and metaphor. Only by revealing all three verities simultaneously, Adams indicated, could landscape photographs transcend mere representation and accomplish the goals of all expressive art.

Robert Adams was prominent among the "new topographic" photographers who emerged in the 1970s, using his work to reveal the generally degrading human encroachment into pristine natural space. Acknowledging the human presence in the environment was a dramatic shift from the aesthetic of the seminal "purist" nature photographer Ansel Adams, who was known to "clean up" his images by removing jet exhaust trails from the sky. In this post-postmodern era, we better understand the subjectivity inherent in all art, including photography-that the revealed "truth" is the artist's construction.

Davis resident Ian Bornarth is a talented and technically skilled photographer. Trained at the Rochester Institute of Photography, Bornarth has been active as an adventure, nature and travel photographer for more than 12 years. He is familiar to Davis audiences, having shown his work in several local exhibitions, including a 1999 show at the Art Gallery of the UC Davis Craft Center, where he teaches black and white and color photography. Bornarth's color images of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Pt. Reyes and elsewhere-on view through February 5 at the Hart Gallery in downtown Davis-reveal many truths.

With a nod in Ansel Adams' direction, Bornarth's more rhapsodic images include his staggering "Mt. Lassen and Helen Lake," which offers a wonderfully clear image of the snow-topped peak, reflected in shallow waters so still we can see the stones beneath the surface. His photographs of Moab, the popular mountain biking and hiking destination in Utah, capture the immensity of the region's dramatic rock sculptures, patiently carved by erosive action over eons. The red-orange stone arches and surfaces, textured by shadowed streaks, fissures and pockmarks, contrasts starkly with the smooth blue-hued sky. This abstracted quality of light and color is particularly effective in Bornarth's "Bryce Canyon" with its numerous stone columns in military-like formation.

One of Bornarth's strongest works is "Oak Tree and Stone Sentinel," which, in addition to being beautifully rendered, works metaphorically on many levels. Amidst rolling grass-covered hills, a tree grows next to a pile of rocks, both shrouded in a murky primordial fog. Fate has conjoined them, and the contrast between the eternal stone and the mortal tree is rich with allegory. The newly budding branches of the restless oak reach up and away from the rock, seemingly aching to escape the bounds of destiny, visibly aspiring to untold grandeur. The stone sentinel seems to smile knowingly, with the wisdom of ages, settled and serene.

Several of Bornarth's images offer a subtle, yet effective commentary about the human impact on the natural environment. His "Eucalyptus Trees and Coastal Farm" presents a row of mature trees emerging from the left foreground to dominate the entire image. Their foliage and mass "overshadow" everything else in their vicinity. Eucalypti, of course, are a non-native species introduced into California in the last century. The towering presence of a precise row of these invasive exotics near a coastal farm in Marin is symptomatic of the often reckless and poorly considered imprint people make on the environment everywhere. The way Bornarth frames the scene, with several branches reaching threateningly toward the viewer, seems to express his concern about abusive and potentially self-destructive human interaction with the environment.

This concern also apparent in Bornarth's image "Walnut Trees," which presents a rural scene near Winters, California. Our view is framed through two pairs of symmetrically arranged trees, across a recently planted field, with another thin row of trees in the distance. Far beyond, the peaks of the Vaca Range are visible through hazy clouds. Human presence is everywhere in this image. For one thing, trees don't grow naturally in neat, regularly spaced rows. This view was once very different. As was the scene in Bornarth's image "Wild Radish Field," where our view of the distant mountains is blocked by a wire fence, nestled amidst a profusion of flowers. The rusty barbs don't enhance the view. Bornarth gently reminds us of how landscapes have been altered in the past, and how important it is to carefully consider future alterations.

Ian Bornarth's photographs provoke a wan sadness. Not that his lyrical images lack beauty. They are stunning. Nor are they lacking in artistry or technical accomplishment. No, they sadden us with a great nostalgic longing for the Eden-like places they portray.

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Last modified March 22, 2001

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