Every once in a long while, you see or do something that leaves a mark on you–good or bad. This is one of those really good ones. . .
While in New York covering the Adobe ideas conference, friends suggested, well demanded really, that I go see a photography show by Gregory Colbert. I am glad that I did. Rarely has anything “photographic” truly impressed or moved me. This show, of over 200 prints in an unusual architectural environment specially designed for the show by architect Shigeru Ban (a finalist to rebuild the World Trade Center) and built at Pier 54 along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s lower west side, indeed impressed me. More accurately, I was stunned. While I was aware of the images from seeing the catalog, I was completely unprepared for the effect of walking down the center isle of wooden planks and viewing the full-size prints suspended in an environment so perfect for viewing.
While the environment, lighting and moody music set the stage, it was the prints that dominated the experience. The prints, in a sepia rendering and hanging by essentially invisible mountings, are about 3 x 10 feet printed on Japanese cloth-like parchment made specially by Hiromi Paper. The printing process is unkown–Colbert doesn’t discuss the process. “People in photography love to talk about their toolboxes,” he says. “To me the most important thing in the toolbox is natural light and the species I collaborate with, be it Homo sapiens or elephant or whatever.” The images are surrounded by an additional border of an applied thin paper collage. The prints are over-coated with a rubbing of beeswax.
While it’s tempting to pass off the compositions as image assemblies, they are not.
The BookLA says: “The cynical eye is trained to assume trickery in images such as these, is resistant to the idea that they could represent the actual and the possible, but these images owe nothing to Photoshop, photo manipulation, montage, artificial lighting, or special effects.”
I believe this to be true. I had two completely different perceptions of the work–one while walking down the aisle the first time–and another entirely new perception after viewing the film presentation housed in a theatre at the end of the gallery. Having seen the film images in the video, my return walk allowed me to see the prints with an entirely new perspective–that these were actual images. It was a breath of fesh air for a Photoshop cynic such as myself.
The striking yet serene images evoke a spritual response–a view of “oneness” with humanity and animals and nature. The show is the result of over 10 years of travels and 25 expeditions to locales such as; India, to photograph the elephants that are Colbert’s “first love”, to Sri Lanka, South Africa, Egypt, and the oceans off the Azores.
Says Colbert: “We live in species ghettoes. There used to be a diversity of species in places we lived, whereas now, we have very little interaction with other species. When we’re young there’s not that sense of being isolated from other species. Young children are able to speak with animals, and then they get banished.”
So it is that most of the people in the photographs are children–they seem to have a natural relationship to the animals. But in other images, with Colbert himself swimming underwater, we see a more mature interaction with the animals–far more intellectual.
The show in New York, which opened March 5th and will run until June 6th, is only the second showing of this work. The first showing was in Venice in 2002 where it took up the entire vast space of the Arsenale, the Renaissance-era shipyard owned by the Venice Biennale. Called the world’s first “nomadic museum” the Ashes and snow collection will move next to Los Angeles, then on to the Vatican and China. Along the way, Colbert plans to change the mix of photographs so the show is never the same in any two spots.
“It’s a very restless project,” he said. “I think this will be a long journey.”
The project has an informative web site and offers an online store for the purchase of posters, show catalogs and hand-bound books. Ashes and Snow: New York Exhibition Catalog at $130 is an unusually rich presentation that “collects more than 190 images from the U.S. debut of Ashes and Snow on Pier 54 in New York City. The books were printed and bound in Italy; the covers are created out of handmade paper from Nepal which is sealed with natural beeswax; interior pages are printed on handmade Italian paper; each book is hand sewn and tied with thread stained with hibiscus tea leaves”. I had to have one!
The show and Colbert have already received a lot of media attention. MSNBC has a story from Newsweek titled Dances With Elephants. ABC News has one titled Exhibition Showcases Wonders of Nature, in ‘Nomadic’ Museum. The Villager has another titled New age Noah transforms a bestiary.
The show and Colbert are not without critics. Since he works in relative secrecy and with no recognized gallery nor museum, the art world is rather cautious. From this New York Times article from August 22, 2002 by Alan Riding:
“Until now Gregory Colbert has been that rare artist who goes out of his way not to be noticed. He was represented by no gallery, he held no exhibitions for a decade, and he gave no interviews. He was in a sense a secret artist, though the secret was shared by a small group of wealthy private collectors who, through acquisitions and sheer enthusiasm, helped to finance his work.
He needed this help. In his quest to photograph the mystical relationship between humans and animals, he made 27 lengthy trips to distant corners of the world over nine years. He was usually accompanied by a support team, supplies and equipment. He even rented oceangoing vessels for months on end. In brief, it was both costly and complicated to produce images of great simplicity.”
The Chicago Tribune reports that ” Nomadic it may be, but this museum is no flimsy, midnight-at-the-oasis affair. The walls of the 45,000-square-foot structure consist of 148 stacked cargo containers arranged in a checkerboard pattern. Its 56-foot-high fabric roof is held aloft by 30-inch-diameter cardboard tubes. It stretches 672 feet down an old pier on the Hudson River”
” The unheated museum, whose $3.5 million construction cost was financed by Swiss watchmaker Rolex, accomplishes what few museum installations could, plunging viewers into an ethereal space that is part warehouse, part cathedral.”
Not unlike Christo, whose Central Park The Gates ended just before Colbert’s show was opened, this photographer does things in unusual and creative ways–certainly well out of the fine art mainstream. Which to be honest, I think is pretty darn cool.
Open to the public March 5-June 6, 2005
Hudson River Park, Pier 54 @ West 13th Street, New York City
Tuesday-Thursday 11:00AM – 7:ooPM
Friday-Saturday 11:00AM – 8:00PM
Sunday Noon – 5:00PM
General Admission: $12
Seniors and students with ID: $6
Children under 12 with an adult: Free
Tuesday is “Pay as you wish” day.
Tickets are available online via TicketWeb.
The Ashes and snow website has additional information. It should be noted that there are two presentations that appear to be selected by random. A regular site with standard Flash based navigation and another site that is pure multimedia with limited navigation but wonderful animation and sound. I would suggest trying several times until you get the version with the animation and sound. On the regular site with navigation there is a slide show of images and access to both Quick Time and Windows Media Player versions of three show video clips.
Editors Note: while researching this review we could not confirm whether Colbert uses Photoshop nor if the prints were digital output. We will continue to investigate the Colbert process, but wanted to get the article up in a timely manner. If we find out anything useful, we’ll post updates in the future.