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Art Review: ‘Fellowship 14’ at Silver Eye Center for Photography

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Donna J. Wan
2011
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Donna J. Wan
Donna J. Wan's 'At the Salt Flats,' 2009
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Donna J. Wan
Donna J. Wan's 'On Top of the Cliff,' 2009-2012
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Aaron MacLachlan
Aaron MacLachlan's 'Blinder,' 2013
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Aaron MacLachlan
Aaron MacLachlan's 'Raw Materials' 2013

Sometimes it pays to pretend you’re an Asian tourist. For Donna J. Wan of Menlo Park, Calif., it garnered her the Silver Eye Center for Photography’s $3,000 International Fellowship award.

At the center, two dozen of her voyeuristic photographs take up the first two galleries. Each features people in landscapes, large and luminous, either relaxing, talking or taking in the view.

Wan was inspired by the paintings of the 19th-century German romantic landscape painter Casper David Friederich, who painted people from behind to allow the viewer to project him or herself into the scene. She set out to capture similar views of people in nature, mostly in California, in places ranging from Pinnacles National Monument in southern Monterey County to Yosemite National Park.

Wan set out to answer the question “How do people identify with the landscape?” with a medium-format film camera. She says in the past, she made pictures of the natural world that had been altered by man in some way or another — from subtle incursions to a near annihilation of it.

“While people were present in some of my previous work, I was concerned more with the evidence of their intervention. They were there in spirit but not in actuality,” she says. “In this new body of work, where people are the focus of my photographs, I investigate how they relate to, interact with and experience the landscape.”

For this new series, Wan intentionally photographed people from behind, in shadow or at a scale where it is difficult to obtain a clear read of their faces. These “anti-portraits” are not about individual identities of people but about how they “fit into” (or not) the landscapes that she has captured.

“My hope is that by keeping the … identities of the individual anonymous, that you enter the picture more in a vicarious way,” she says. “They’re not portraits of people; they just happen to be in the landscape.”

That’s obvious in photographs like “At the Edge of the Lake,” in which the couple taking in a mountain lake view at Pinnacles National Monument are so far away as not to be identifiable.

Wan says, “By obscuring the identities of the people in my photographs, I am hoping to give the viewer a similar experience — to imagine themselves in these overwhelming, calming, peculiar, mundane, social or lonely depictions of the landscape. Each of us experiences the landscape in ways unique to us, and these experiences shape who we are and how we see the world around us.”

Wan is quick to point out that none of the photographs in this series was staged. “I am not acquainted with any of the people represented, and I did not speak to or interact with any of them during the shooting process.”

“It works to my advantage that I am Chinese and a female,” Wan says. “Because when they look back at me, they can assume I am an Asian tourist, and, being female, that I am not threatening.”

Then, there’s the work of Aaron MacLachlan, a San Francisco native living in Garfield, who won the $1,000 Keystone Award.

In 2011, Google introduced a Search by Image function, allowing users to upload an image file and generate “visually similar” results. When confronted with original data, the algorithm analyzes visual information abstractly, locating images with congruous distributions of color and value, without inferring content. Thus, a photograph uploaded to the search engine will return a grouping of images that might have nothing in common but basic elements of color, composition and overall design.

Wanting to respond to this new technology through his art, MacLachlan entered his own photographs into the search engine to see what he got back. Then, he chose his favorite among them and paired the two.

“The images generated are completely disparate, but relate in some way, such as communication, content or palette,” MacLachlan says, pointing to “Raw Materials,” in which a photograph of a shopping cart against a green wall is paired with a Google-generated image of a rare green mineral.

MacLachlan says, though they may be images of totally unrelated subjects, “startling analogies” like these might illuminate pictorial and symbolic elements that had previously eluded his awareness.

Ultimately, MacLachlan says of this process, “it can be a meditation on Internet tropes and the overwhelming abundance of images and their uses.”

Kurt Shaw is art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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