Quiet Elegance

Lynn Geesaman's photographs temporarily impose order on a chaotic world.

"Parc de Seaux, Paris, France," by Lynn Geesaman, color print.
"Parc de Seaux, Paris, France," by Lynn Geesaman, color print.
Lynn Geesaman's photograph of Antietam National Cemetery makes one think not of high school history lessons, but rather the smoke and blood of September 17, 1862. On that day, during the Civil War, the Confederates' first invasion of the North was stopped, and 35,000 soldiers died in the struggle. Geesaman evokes a misty, dew-swept morning that is all muted greens and grays. This, one concludes, is what it might have been like a few hours before the battle started. The photographer's poetic representation of the calm before the storm is part of an exhibit devoted to her work at the Cleveland Museum of Art, called Poetics of Place.

Geesaman, a Cleveland native, is largely self-taught as a photographer (her degree at Wellesley College was in physics and mathematics). Indeed, her summation of her art uses a word beloved by many physicists and mathematicians: elegance. Here, the word is used to describe simple, direct solutions to complicated problems. Says Geesaman: "Today, to portray something that is ideal and perfect and beautiful -- that is somehow radical. I think a photo succeeds to the extent . . . it has a feeling that all is well in the world, it's all in balance, it's a quiet haven, a place that expresses beauty, intelligence, elegance." One could perhaps amend this statement by adding that, in her work, all is well the moment the photo is taken, but there are often subtle hints of ominous things that are about to take place or that have just taken place. That's what makes the work strong: One senses the fragility of all that order.

The title of the show has been well-chosen. Geesaman, indeed, seems more interested in the feel of a place than in the accumulation of details that give that place an objective presence. For example, the haziness in the Antietam shot (achieved with a diffusing technique in the darkroom) gives the scene a dreamlike feel. Touches like that proclaim Geesaman an heir to the pictorialist tradition wherein 19th-century photographers used romanticized lighting, soft-focus techniques, and theatrical staging to emphasize the imprint of their own view. In fact, many such artists took this approach because they were attempting to raise photography to an art. The reasons for using these devices (to help legitimize an art form that had not been taken seriously in its infancy) are no longer pressing, since photography has a secure niche. But contemporary photographers like Geesaman have returned to pictorialist methods because, by using them, they can more faithfully capture the intensity of their own perceptions of the world. In other words, pictorialist traditions are merely a springboard for the artist's own way of shaping her vision. Some devices are familiar, but they are employed in new and arresting ways.

The Antietam shot is pictorialist in its use of soft focus, muted color, and stage-managed composition, but there is tension here, because all these traditionally romantic technical devices are used in the service of a tough-minded vision. The shot seems to have been taken early in the morning, perhaps just after sunrise. In the background, there is a fog-enshrouded mountain ridge, and in the foreground there are a meadow, a split-rail fence, and some headstones. There are no human beings; the haziness is the main character in this drama. You can almost smell the dampness of the early-morning earth.

Geesaman ranges far and wide in the 15 photographs on display -- not just Antietam, but the Huntington Gardens in Saratoga, California, and parks in Paris, France. By choosing to photograph gardens (spots that are already carefully designed), one might justifiably ask if there is anything left for Geesaman to do except capture what stands in front of her. Surely, this is an instance when the photographer gets a free ride, because the subject matter is so carefully arranged to begin with. Actually, there's work involved. Geesaman's garden shots suggest that photographers choose to make a scene interesting by putting a frame around it. The garden or the arboretum is not picturesque until the photos bring out and emphasize these qualities. Though she may never have planted seeds or trimmed hedges in that particular garden, the photographer, by choosing what to emphasize, becomes a co-creator.

This aspect of Geesaman's art can be sensed in a 1992 black-and-white shot called "Arboretum de Cheoreloup, France." Set against what looks to be an early evening sky is a compact, carefully manicured tree having a conical shape. There's another tree in the foreground that has branches that stretch across the whole length of the frame. The striking thing about this shot is that its pieces fit together as in a puzzle. A rounded branch in the expansive tree echoes the curve of the conically shaped one. The empty spaces between branches, evenly distributed and evocative of geometrical shapes, are a striking discovery. It's as though Geesaman has discovered one of nature's secret designs and has had the wisdom to capture it on film. This is the kind of scene that one doesn't go to arboretums to witness. The strength of the photograph is due entirely to the photographer, who has paid attention to a chance arrangement of forms that most viewers would miss.

Also arresting in this shot is the textural clarity Geesaman is able to get, even though she employs the aforementioned diffusing technique in the darkroom. The branches have a tactile dimension: One can practically sense a rough, splintery quality. There is something ironic and witty about a photographer who uses darkroom manipulations to "portray something that is ideal and perfect and beautiful." If the scene were all of these things, why the manipulations? The answer is that photographers, in such circumstances, are not claiming that they are improving on nature. In fact, quite the contrary. They are suggesting that, with some extra artistic intervention, the inherent beauty of a scene will be made manifest. Geesaman and others are merely trying to find the artistic methods that will best express the balance that they are convinced is already there.

Sometimes, the order that Geesaman finds in such areas has a hallucinatory quality. It's so far removed from what one tends to see every day that it makes sense only as a dream. This is true of the 1997 color print "Parc de Seaux, Paris, France." It shows a series of sculpted trees on each side of the frame that extend far back into space. At the center, there is a walkway that progressively narrows. In between the leafy crowns of the trees, at the top of the frame, is a white line of sky, which extends back into space as well. This is a typical park scene -- a walkway surrounded by trees on each side -- but there is a radical quality in its order. The trees are too perfectly sculpted and too green. The path is too symmetrical. It looks like a movie set. This photograph, the purest expression of Geesaman's stated artistic goals, transforms an ordinary scene into something magical.

That, in the final analysis, is the lesson of this fine show. The way a photographer creates meaning in a photograph is the product of prior decisions about setting, methods, and treatment. Geesaman seeks balance, looks for it in gardens, cemeteries, and arboretums, and works in the darkroom to add expressive emphasis. All this serves her vision. When she is at Antietam, there is a sense of how the quiet in that scene is fragile. When she is in France, the same is true (movie sets last for the duration of the film, not forever). For Geesaman, photography is not merely a way of discovering order in the world; it is the means by which one can create order in a world that frequently is chaotic.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at [email protected].