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Feb. 3, 2005



Visions: An afternoon with Ellen Land-Weber

AFTER MORE THAN 30 YEARS WITH Humboldt State University's art department, Ellen Land-Weber is officially retired, but thanks to FERP (the Faculty Early Retirement Program), she's still teaching photo technique and photo history, classes I took from her years ago when I was an HSU student."Water in Motion: Arcata Tap Water No. 4" art by Ellen Land-Weber

I caught up with Land-Weber at her Arcata home over the weekend, wondering if she might have time to drive to Eureka's Old Town, where the staff at HSU's First Street Gallery was in the process of hanging a retrospective of her work titled, "Threads of Vision: Weaving a Life in Photography." She was happy to postpone an afternoon of weed-whacking to talk about her primary passion in life.

[Water in Motion: Arcata Tap Water No. 4," by Ellen Land-Weber.]

Our plan was simple: Before heading for First Street, we would visit the upstairs gallery at Swanlund's Camera Shop to see a recently installed photo show, "Visions in Black and White," once again drawn from the formidable collection of publisher/vintner Patrick O'Dell.

The gallery at Swanlund's is something of a hidden treasure. As usual the show there includes original prints by photo masters. While previous exhibits have drawn from the work of specific photographers like Ansel Adams or Weston family, "Visions in Black and White" is a hodgepodge, mixing classic works with less known contemporary photographers.

Central in the main room is an astonishingly gorgeous piece, "Running White Deer, County Wicklow, Ireland," shot in 1967 by Paul Caponigro. A panoramic view of a dark forest provides a background for a herd of ghostlike deer, blurred by a slow shutter speed. As Land-Weber put it, the effect is "mesmerizing."

"Caponigro was known for landscapes and did a lot of travel photography," she explained, slipping into lecture mode, "although his travel photographs were more about textures and forms in nature. He was a disciple of Minor White, so he was very much into the Zen idea."

Nearby is a photo masterpiece by White, an abstract shot of a striated cliff pockmarked with bullet-holes. "Minor White was an amazing photographer," said Land-Weber, "and was also very influential as a teacher.

"He had this whole philosophy about the connection between the viewer, the picture and the photographer, a Zen thing. He wanted to induce a meditative state with his pictures, which this [photo] does. Some of his pictures are even more abstract that this one, but they're never manipulated, he just isolates."

As we made our way across town to the First Street Gallery, Land-Weber remarked that the virtuosity of photographers like Adams, White and Edward Weston had a profound impact on students of photography in the 1960s like her. Matching their mastery of technique was nearly impossible, so those who followed had to explore new ground, pushing the photo envelope.

Her own "Threads of Vision" retrospective demonstrates various areas of exploration, many of them offering new interpretations on the nature of the photographic image.

Walking into the gallery, the first photos you see are two of her most recent works, abstract studies that bring to mind White's Zen vision.

"Water in Motion: Arcata Tap Water No. 4," was created by photographing a sprinkling of fine powder on a tray full of water from her tap. "I just drew a brush through the water," Land-Weber explained. "What you see is the movement captured at a moment in time."

The room is divided by a wall holding photos in a more traditional, documentary vein: on one side, portraits from her book, The Passionate Collector, published in 1980 by Simon and Schuster; on the other, selections from "Company Town: Scotia, California," a series she shot in the 1980s, just after the Pacific Lumber Co. was taken over by Maxxam.

Circling the room is a world of fantasy, starting with part of her "3M Color in Color" portfolio, begun in 1971 using one of the first color copiers. Land-Weber used the office machine in new ways to generate images juxtaposing leaves, seaweed and other 3-D objects with images drawn from 19th-century prints creating fanciful collages, some humorous, some surreal.

As implied by the show's title, the common thread through all the work is Land-Weber's photographic vision. "They divide into the fantasy world and the real world, the inside and the outside, work created in the studio and work created outside," she noted.

Land-Weber further refined her collage technique is a series of works shot with Polaroid cameras in various sizes, then when Photoshop came along, took her image combination to another level, incorporating scans of small objects and more 19th-century drawings with her own digitized photos.

More recent collage work includes a series, "Water in the West: Arcata Marsh Project," again incorporating imagery from old natural history prints, but now adding digital scans she created using an electron microscope with her photos of the marsh.

"What I like about the marsh pictures is they combine both sides. I can use my collage techniques and make a comment about what the marsh is about, and about the importance of water in our lives."

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- in this case the thread of beauty that connects these intriguing images is the eye of the photographer.

"Threads of Vision: Weaving a Life in Photography" opens this week at HSU's First Street Gallery, 422 First St., Eureka, open Tuesday-Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. with extended hours this Saturday, Feb. 5, for Arts Alive!


Ellen Land-Weber offers a public lecture at the gallery Friday, Feb. 11, from 5-6:30 p.m. with the artist showing slides and discussing her body of work.

Swanlund's Camera Shop is at 527 F St., Eureka. The store and the upstairs gallery are open from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 9-5 Saturdays. Swanlund's is also open from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 5, for Arts Alive!


Bob Doran


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