SAN DIEGO — "A dead cat," the shocked woman visitor muttered to her companion as they stopped to stare at a 20-by-24-inch image of a decaying feline.
Despite the grotesque image, the couple lingered to peer at the cat and other dead creatures captured in minute, loving detail by photographers Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig.
Another response from another visitor at the Museum of Photographic Arts, this one to Holly Roberts' paintings:
"I have the feeling that person's a little bit sick."
"Yeah," her companion said. "To see things like that."
Roberts, a New Mexico painter who paints on large photographs instead of canvas, generally sees things from a surreal, mystical, almost American Indian-like perspective, said museum Executive Director Arthur Ollman. Human heads may look like wolves or dogs or birds to her.
Ollman personally curated the exhibit, "introductions: EXTENDED IMAGES.".
"We'll have people go out shaking their heads," Ollman acknowledged. "But it's a grand potential to go beyond what we consider your normal photographic experience."
"Extended Images" is about extending the uses of photography, including how artists who are non-photographers use photography. Besides Roberts, Akin and Ludwig, the exhibition surveys the recent work of the team of Patrick Nagatani and Andree Tracey as well as local artist Faiya Fredman.
The most purely photographic work in "Extended Images" are the images of Akin and Ludwig. Using a large format camera and the old-fashioned platinum palladium black and white process, they've produced soft, warm tones of remarkable precision.
The 20-by-24-inch images are actually contact prints made on a fine, cream-colored paper. In contast, Akin and Ludwig's subject matter--dead deer, a pig fetus with its oddly human head, a sliced human face, fetal skeletons of Siamese twins--is repulsive.
According to Ollman, the beauty of the photographic medium attracts viewers, while the subject matter repels them.
"Approach/avoidance is what they're after," Ollman said. "You want to get near it, and you can't get near it. You're fascinated and disgusted at the same moment. It's a really nice predicament to put your audience (in), very audience-involving."
All of the photographs in the exhibit were made since 1985.
Nagatani and Tracey are fairly traditional photographers who use the modern Polaroid 20-by-24-inch camera that produces prints of that size. Their theme is frequently anti-nuclear, and a fiery red tone often colors much of the familiar subject matter, whether it's the restaurant scene of "Atomic Cafe," made here in 1983 at the museum, or "34th and Chambers," a New York subway scene.
"Nagatani and Tracey in a sense make very straightforward pictures," Ollman said. "It's the method used that's different. What they've set up in front of the camera is unusual."
Tracey paints a backdrop, often a familiar-looking city, seaside or desert scene. In front of the backdrop, they suspend dozens of objects and cardboard cutouts of people using clear fishing line. In the subway photograph, actually a triptych, they've suspended among the "passengers" scores of props, apparently being blown through the air by a nuclear blast. These include a half pint of whiskey, a Snickers candy bar, a Big Mac and its ubiquitous box. Amid this impending apocalypse, Nagatani can be seen snapping away with his trusty Polaroid SX-70. These photographs are also being blown away as he furiously attempts to capture the disaster as it happens.
Painter Holly Roberts starts with a photograph, but leaves little of it in the resulting artwork. In her imitation primitive-style paintings, she uses muted blues, grays and greens with touches of red, bright blue or yellow. Her subjects often are dogs and birds, but she also attempts to show modern society in a collision with nature.
In "Ready to Operate" she has painted a physician with what looks like a very much alive coral snake on the operating table. The photograph plays a role in "the dialogue" of her paintings, Ollman said. But because only portions of it are seen, it's difficult to tell what role.
"There's a reason why she doesn't use canvas," he said. "There must be a reason why she doesn't invent these things completely out of thin air and put them on a canvas rather than a photograph.
"Why bother? Because the photograph has some element in the dialogue."
Roberts paints on 16-by-20 or 20-by-24-inch silver gelatin prints.
The works by Del Mar's Fredman, with an archeological focus, are almost soothing in comparison to the intensity of the other paintings in the exhibition.
Fredman printed photographs of a current archeological dig near the Greek village of Akroteri on 7-by-9-foot rectangles of canvas. To them she has added sand, papier-mache, steel mesh, wood and paint. The result, with three-dimensional elements, looks like both photographs and the actual dig.
Fredman's constructions, Roberts' paintings, and the pure photographs of Akin and Ludwig, Nagatani and Tracey comprise an exhibition that Ollman feels is worth the risk in negative public reaction.
"They're all vigorous bodies of work that take the photographic experience in a different direction," Ollman said. "We're not just doing another Edward Weston show here.
"It's an effort to give the museum a very contemporary show for very interesting new ideas that most of the public in San Diego certainly has not seen anything like . . . "
The artists will talk about their works in a lecture series. The 7:30 p.m. presentations begin tonight with Akin and Ludwig at the Natural History Museum Auditorium in Balboa Park. Roberts speaks Oct. 29 at Boehm Lecture Hall in the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in the park. Nagatani and Tracey appear Nov. 5 at the Natural History Museum Auditorium, and Fredman speaks Nov. 19 at Boehm Hall.