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Images of Natural Selection

March 12, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nature has always had a great ally in artists who devote themselves to depicting its beauty.

Just as painters helped secure the creation of the national park system and other preservation efforts early in the 20th century, the ever-present threat of decimation and development of natural areas should be well-served by the best contemporary art-about-nature.

A case in point is "Among the Trees," the photography of Bruce Barnbaum, now showing at the Janss-Nichols Gallery in Thousand Oaks. The subplot behind these images has to do with a worshipful appreciation of a natural world that deserves all the tender loving care possible.

Besides harboring an infectious and refreshingly unsentimental love of nature, Barnbaum is a master craftsman. As seen here, he produces pristine prints that capture an almost supernatural beauty and mystery from perfectly natural sources. Yet it's not always clear what we are looking at, which adds to the enigmatic atmosphere of Barnbaum's work.

Instead of taking a broad, panoramic view of the natural vistas he seeks out, Barnbaum likes to isolate patterns within tightly cropped compositions. Swirling, seemingly abstract designs are found etched into rock formations. We are further led to wonderment, realizing that these patterns were formed by water and/or glaciers.

"Boulder and Metamorphosis Wave" displays dense waves of visual energy, with its tautly raked textures, and the strange convergence of textures and cave-like openings in "The Opening, Lower Antelope Canyon" presents a striking reality that is almost hard to fathom.

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Certain artists early in the history of fine art photography set standards by which future photographers are bound to be compared, and Barnbaum's work can be seen as an extension of his precursors. Edward Weston and sons, for instance, mastered the domain of shooting sensuous, undulating contours of sand dunes and close-up perspectives of vegetation, and a Weston-esque touch is evident here in such pieces as "Hallows and Points, Peach Canyon."

Certainly, it's difficult to take in this exhibition without thinking of the seminal influence of the great Ansel Adams, and for good reason: Barnbaum studied with Adams and was the winner of the Ansel Adams Award for Photography and Conservation in 1974.

Adams' inspiration may have been at work in "Sunrise 40 Miles Ridge." In this image, a ridge far from urban realities is contrasted with the clouded sky reflected in a tiny pool of water on a jagged rock surface.

The work in the gallery's back room steers in a different iconographic direction, with images of trees and forested areas. Often, he details the wooded context rather than viewing trees as individual specimens: He savors the forest as much as the trees.

"Fallen Sequoias" becomes a little etude of intersecting lines and "Sunrise Fog, Altamaha Swamp" basks in mystery, its tree subjects half obscured by foggy swamp air.

Trees are wonderful characters through Barnbaum's viewfinder. Mystical, gangly fern-covered trees hang over a country road in "Cumberland Island Road," and a thicket is seen in a Rorschach-like echo in "Cypresses and Reflections."

In short, it's an exhibition that might have the persuasive power to give developers pause before ravaging special corners of our planet. Take in the eerie charm of "Twilight, Colorado Plateau," for example. Here, an alien-like rock formation is viewed in the light at dusk.

All is right, and unexpectedly lovely, with the world, thanks to the inspired eye--and the darkroom savvy--of the photographer.

DETAILS

"Among the Trees," through April 21 at the Janss-Nichols Gallery, 1408 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Tues.-Fri. or by appointment. 497-3720.

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