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Trick photography

Florian Maier-Aichen gives broad powers to the camera.

July 16, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

AS a photographer, Ansel Adams virtually owns Half Dome. The San Francisco landscapist, who died in 1984, took so many classic pictures of the Yosemite landmark during his 50-year career that his photographs virtually cemented its iconic status in the public imagination. Today, when your brain thinks Half Dome, chances are your mind's eye sees an Adams.

That's one reason it's especially gratifying to see Florian Maier-Aichen's new photograph of Half Dome. The work is a centerpiece of his small "Focus" show at the Museum of Contemporary Art's outpost at the Pacific Design Center, organized by curator Rebecca Morse. Ambition is always bracing to encounter in a young artist -- the German-born, L.A.-based photographer is 33 -- and Maier-Aichen has made the camera's awesome power to establish typologies of thought, perception and feeling a focus of his work. Engaging Adams head-on is apt.

There's another reason it's gratifying. "The best general view," which is the marvelously loaded title for his Half Dome image, is terrific.

The photograph is monumental -- 7 feet tall and nearly as wide -- and appropriate to both the craggy geological feature of the landscape and its outsized place in photographic history.

Adams' technical mastery was in black and white, but Maier-Aichen saturates his C-print in richly brooding color. Spiky green pine branches frame the upper left corner, while cool blues and grays dominate the palette. The deep-green valley floor is a nearly black slash, in stark contrast to the silvery "hood" of the sheared mountaintop.

Half Dome is pictured from an aerial vantage, as occurs in most of the show's 14 photographs. The high-flying perspective suggests that, in a world dominated by cameras, lenses and digital imaging, free-floating omnipotence passes for "the best general view." Here the sovereign eye wrestles with the powerful force of geology, giving authority to and getting it from the image.

Half Dome is shown from an oblique angle, probably shot from near Glacier Point. The three-quarter view is typical of dynamic portraiture. (Think of the "Mona Lisa" merged into the craggy landscape behind her.) The peak swells up from a rugged spine of mountains like a colossal living creature -- part magnificent bird, muscular wings outstretched, and part monstrous, mysterious phantom.

Maier-Aichen employs multiple negatives, digital manipulation and other studio techniques in his work. By contrast, a nearby gelatin-silver print, modestly scaled, embodies the most conventional, straightforward photographic technique, but its subject is a pure fabrication. In a luxurious array of grays, the photograph records a heraldic shield topped by a scrollwork pediment -- the logo of a 20th century Italian film studio, called Titanus.

Maier-Aichen approaches the photographic field the way a painter approaches a canvas. The Titanus image is one of five black-and-white photographs in the show, and all of them appear at first glance to be charcoal or graphite drawings. A sixth work in navy blue and white shows a blueprint rendering of a ship.

In that sense his art comes full circle. He does for the postmodern world of digital imagery what camera work attempted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when various pictorialists used painting's strategies and motifs in photographs. Modern photographic orthodoxy asserts that the world seen directly through a camera's lens is richer than imagination in creative possibility.

(For a fuller articulation of this viewpoint, see the incisive interview with street photographer Tod Papageorge in last fall's issue of Bomb magazine.) But Maier-Aichen's best work is a persuasive argument against this limited conception of camera art.

His work is also one potential road map out of the cul-de-sac in which monumental digital photographs have been stuck for several years. Those self-conscious, chromatically saturated views of modern institutions -- office buildings, art museums, discount stores, civic spaces -- were produced by an important generation of artists (many of them German) beginning in the 1990s. Maier-Aichen's photographs aren't exactly literary, but the cinematic underpinning of his imagination is obvious in pictures of ghost ships, strange rural landscapes and outlandish urban sprawl.

One of the show's most haunting works is an untitled black-and-white aerial view of the Southern California coastline -- the panorama you see from an airplane window when arriving or departing LAX. Printed as a negative image, the Pacific is transformed into a steel-gray sheet, the beaches into a dark gray line that separates the sea from the oceanic metropolis. In the uppermost register of the monumental picture, the sky is a soft, sooty black, drifting down over the unfolding landscape like a veil.

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