Visual Arts: Photographer John Wimberley points his lens to the heavens

Nov 6, 2007 at 6:51 pm

‘The Classic and the Spiritual: Photographs by John Wimberley’
Through Nov. 30
Paul Paletti Gallery
713 E. Market St.    

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” The words of photographer Diane Arbus help explain a mystery in John Wimberley’s “Descending Angel” photograph. Look closely — it has six toes on the left foot.

Even gallery owner Paul Paletti wondered about this. After an e-mail exchange with Wimberley (a portion is reproduced below), the answer is, well, a secret we will probably never know.

“The woman I photographed had five (toes) on each foot, but there’s definitely six in the picture,” wrote Wimberley. “We once had a physician examine the print and her foot at the same time, and he had no explanation. Nor have I ever heard, or thought of, a photographic explanation that wasn’t flawed.

“But interestingly, many religious and esoteric traditions state that angels have six toes, and I’ve heard that Michelangelo painted them that way. I do have a letter from the head of the Harvard University Divinity School inquiring whether ‘Descending Angel’ was a miracle! All I know for sure is that very occasionally something truly magical happens in photography, and I believe ‘Descending Angel’ is in that category, for several reasons.”

I’m sure this is something Wimberley has thought about for many years from both the technical and spiritual points of view. “Descending Angel” is his best-known photograph from a series of a woman underwater that he shot in 1981. He is one of contemporary photography’s best technicians, using black-and-white techniques that make every item clear and sharply detailed. He’s even created film developer formulas.  

But it is his spirituality and its profound connection to his work that sets him apart from many of his fellow photographers. He has studied mythology, psychology and mysticism, all to better understand his emotional relationship to the natural world. He’s a firm believer in what psychologist Carl Jung labeled “synchronicity” — unrelated occurrences that happen at the same time to produce positive results. Artists also call that form of chance “happy accidents.” Artweek magazine summed up his philosophy of life and art: “His prints are not merely technically correct, but wonderfully alive.”

Well known for his angels, he is also a master of the majestic black-and-white landscape photograph. Comparisons to Ansel Adams, the artistic godfather of many celebrated 20th/21st-century landscape photographers, are inevitable. It actually makes sense in Wimberley’s case. Both are known for technical mastery and ability to illustrate nature’s spiritual qualities. He had two exhibitions with Adams in 1983, the year before Adams died, and has shown multiple times in The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, Calif.

Since Wimberley expresses his art in spiritual terminology, a viewer can hope this spirituality of art can be felt. “Waterfall with Light” is both inviting and perplexing. The straightforward title tells little about the allure of the actual photograph. Bare tree limbs jut inward, framing the waterfall in the center of the design. As the water hits the lake, it seems to turn into a flood of light, forming a pool of brightness that is both inviting and magical. Wimberley talks a lot about being completely present, almost meditative, when he photographs. This print has the added advantage of being able to draw in the observer, making the photographer, scene and viewer all “present.”

In contrast, the pictorial elements in “Dunes and Horizontal Ripples” purposely confuse. The large and small sand dunes perched on the rippling sand resemble islands surrounded by watery waves.
Nature again is the theme of his “Bitter Ridge” series. “Bitter Ridge #181” is dominated by the curved furrows in the rock, shaped by centuries of water and wind. One of nature’s dramatic skyscrapers is shown in “Cathedral Gorge,” with the mountain’s sharp point rising to meet a moody clouded sky.

Ghost towns and abandoned architecture are some of his more current subjects, as seen in “Windows.” American Indian rock art has also captured his attention recently as well (there is a small Indian petroglyph in “Lone Grave Butte #284”), a combination of art and spirit that will certainly continue to speak through him to us.

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