Terri Weifenbach: Photography and Painting

In a wonderful, tiny image by the nineteenth-century photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander, "Infant Photography Giving the Painter an Additional Brush," that led into the National Gallery of Art's recent exhibition of The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting 1848-1875 (October 31, 2010 - January 28, 2011), a cherubic child representing photography is seen literally handing a paint brush to an older figure at an easel who represents painting. The scene in this c. 1850 albumin print mimics the look of an allegorical painting. It introduces the bevy of questions and contradictory attitudes surrounding the relationship between photography and painting that have vexed both mediums since photography's invention. Was the photograph the enemy and the end of painting? A helpful tool, as suggested by Rejlander's print? A scientific tool and not an art form? To be considered an art form would photography have to imitate painting? To maintain its authority and stature as a representation of the "real" world would painting have to imitate photography? These concerns may seem moot in a period when we no longer necessarily look at works of art in terms of medium, but Terri Weifenbach re-asserts questions about the nature of photography and painting that potentially set our complacency about the relationships between them off balance.

Before she became a photographer Terri Weifenbach studied painting, and her sense of the distinctions between the two practices informs the work in this exhibition. For her, painting is a process in which you "build your ideas, concepts and world," while photography is one of editing: "[you] edit the world with the camera frame, edit the images from a contact sheet, confine and edit to define your ideas, concept and world." One could argue that, with the advent of digital photography and the practice of performing or staging events for the camera, contemporary phenomena which Weifenbach acknowledges, these differences no longer obtain. However, the question she asks herself is, is it possible to create an image that achieves what a painting does but that nevertheless remains photographic? She wishes to go out into the world as it is and edit in her camera. This is what she means by "photographic."

Although they are clearly, on her terms, photographic, her images nevertheless engage a sense of space and surface that seems at once both photographic and painterly. In many of these pictures, front and back, depth of field, etc. are all mysteriously and dreamily blurred. One of my favorite images is a large print (prints in the exhibition are either approximately 30x40 or 16 x20 inches) of flowers occupying a foreground plane and purposely out of focus. Another frames the trunk of a slender white tree in the center of the image, with a wider one behind it, in which shadows to either side seem at first glance to be climbing up a vertical backdrop in a mutable space that reminds me, in an infinitely more subtle evocation of confused spatial and temporal realities, of the scene in which a flat horizontal street turns into a vertical wall in the recent popular film, Inception.

While another of my favorite images is of a tree stump in which the contrast between deep brown and saturated green reminds me of a painting I once saw by Degas of a fox in the woods, the subject of most of these photographs seems to be line and movement, rather than defined shape and color. In this exhibition color is usually muted and almost monochromatic, which renders distinctions between surface and space even more ambiguous – all is equal, evened out. In two smaller images the red dot of a robin's breast provides a startling spot of focus in an otherwise neutral field, again rendering the spatial reality even more confusing. This use/capturing/editing/ of surprising spots of color is a delightful trope and familiar from some of Weifenbach's previous images.

Her previous exhibition at Civilian Art Projects consisted of images of the same or similar woods as seen here. The emphasis in that show, as in much of her previous work, was on verticality. Not all, but most, of the images in this exhibition emphasize the horizontal – what we refer to as a landscape, or panoramic, mode (vs. the vertical "portrait" format). This format broadens the surface, further diffusing the surface space, and therefore makes it even more difficult to find a stable or precise point on which to focus - - much like the experience of looking at Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist or a broad swathe of canvas irregularly interrupted by vertical zips in a Barnett Newman painting.

So, we are back to the painting analogy. And one wonders, are these images edited? Or built? Or do they represent some indefinable space in between? Does it matter? Or is it the wondering that matters? Grounded in photography's power to bring us to the feeling of a specific time and place, these images nonetheless evoke description in painterly terms. Verging on abstraction but not in an imitation of painting, remaining, emphatically, "photographic," these works engage that teasing relationship between the photographic image and the three-dimensional world that has often bedeviled writers and historians and has never been completely explained.

-- Phyllis Rosenzweig

Quotes are from an e-mail from the artist, March 15, 2011.

back to top


April 22 – June 4, 2011

Opening Reception: Friday, April 22, 7-9pm

Civilian Art Projects is pleased to announce Woods II, new work by renowned photographer Terri Weifenbach. Her second solo exhibition with the gallery continues the Woods project with twenty-one large and small scale images from within the autumn and winter woods of the DC metro area.