In the not so distant past, traditional photography was the province of professionals, journalists and fine artists. When inexpensive cameras became readily available, the pictures taken by amateurs were most often of eventful moments: weddings, proms, birthday parties, vacation highlights and the like.
But even with cheap Kodak Instamatics and their competitor’s products, taking pictures could be a costly pastime. When one would pick up the developed photos, and they were out of focus or badly lit or totally black, it was a hit to the wallet. And it was the loss of a moment one thought had been captured.
The advent of the cell phone camera has changed all that. Shoot on the fly, delete if you don’t like it, edit on the spot. As photography has become less dear, it has become mind numbingly ubiquitous. We live in a world of indulgent selfies, endless snapshots of pets, and pictures of last night’s dinner.
“Pics or it didn’t happen’’ states an oft-shared meme. Everyday photography has become simply ordinary.
The photographs of the artist Amanda Means are anything but everyday and anything but ordinary.
Currently featured in a survey exhibition at the University Art Gallery — Means’ first retrospective — is a remarkable display of her photography (and a few tempera paintings) that date back to the 1970s.
Means work is largely, but not entirely, “camera-less.” A number of her images were created entirely in the darkroom by, for example, inserting leaves into an enlarger and projecting them directly onto photosensitive paper. Tightly cropped and exquisitely detailed, the black-and-white botanical images reveal -and revel in- the tiniest roadmap veins of the plants that surround us.
In the late 1990s, Means converted a 19th century camera into a darkroom enlarger, allowing her to create a light chamber in which she could situate three dimensional objects, such as flower heads.
The translucency of the plant forms paved the way to the exploration of light passing through other objects, notably glasses of water and light bulbs, creating rich and sharp black-and-white images, enlarged to a scale that turns ordinary objects into extraordinary opportunities for contemplation. Means makes the mundane mythic.
Her “Water Glass 1,” from 2011, is an exquisite print of a tumbler. The edge of the liquid in the glass (that horizon line between half full and half empty) is strikingly luminous. The condensation on the glass is “all over” like the spatter of an abstract expressionist painter.
“Water Glass 2”, with its large floating cubes of ice, is a perfect chill.
Images of light bulbs make up much of the exhibition. “One Bulb (Version ll) features twelve images of the same bulb, stacked three high and four across. Remarkably, each image of the bulb has a distinct personality. Some glow like a comic strip symbol for an idea, some are shrouded in darkness, others reveal a filament that seems to smile at the viewer.
“Light Bulb 101 C” features an indistinct black mass in the center of the bulb that borders on the sensual, as one begins to see something beyond the bulbs themselves, as pareidolia (the tendency to find meaning in ambiguity) manifests itself.
Not all of the photographic works by Means are camera-less. Of particular note are three large-scale Polaroids,“Light Bulb 014Gh”, ``Light Bulb 003RoGd”, and “Light Bulb 00051C”, respectively sumptuous green, red and blue.
With vision and a little technology, Means makes houseplants, drinking glasses and light bulbs sources of wonder.
“Amanda Means: Light Years” is on display at the University Art Gallery, 715 Purchase Street, New Bedford through October 23. An opening reception will be held on AHA! Night, Thursday, October 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m., with the artist speaking at 6:00.