A Photographic Imagination

IT'S one thing to photograph what the eye sees. It's quite another to photograph what the mind's eye sees. Ruth Thorne-Thomsen "photographs" her own imagination. The profiles of exquisite ladies emerge from delicate shells. The Leaning Tower of Pisa mysteriously rises up out of a barren and sandy landscape. The ruins of classical sculpture, shrouded in deep mist, perch precariously among twig-trees evoking the ancient and romantic past. Her work has surreal elements, but it would be a mistake to define t his work by so limited a concept.

What Ms. Thorne-Thomsen does is tap into the persuasive realism of the photographic image and the central ideas of various art movements to build her metaphors. In a series called "Views from the Shoreline," for example, she was influenced by the great masters of Italian Renaissance painting. In many portraits of that period, a lady with an elaborate hair arrangement would be painted in profile against a landscape. So in this series, we find profiles of ladies whose hairdos are formed from elaborate shel ls photographed against deep space. They are lively, mysterious, foreign, and evocative of poetic perception.

Here is an undiscovered country explored by the artist who has retrieved artifacts as wondrous and exotic as the discovery of a whole new culture. Her art-historical references are never tricky or pretentious. Nature, culture, and the artist's own imaginative life lean into one another to form these extraordinary metaphors, this "brave new world that has such people in" (Shakespeare). She is engaged in what she calls "stacking metaphors." She points out that we take the photographic image as fact. She th en plays with our assumptions, juggling her bizarre forms around until she comes up with images that seem plausible, though of course, they are not.

"And that's where the epiphany comes in," she says. "When a viewer glimpses one of these landscapes for the first time, [he or she] sees it with fresh eyes. They project themselves into the picture and believe it completely. There is a moment of being transformed ... and then the first question is, `How do you do it?' "

There are tricks to her trade. For one thing, a normal camera will not do for much of her work. She builds her own (or relies on one built by a friend) with quite different capacities than a normal 35-mm camera - a pin-hole camera. Originally designed by Renaissance artists as a tool for rendering perspective, her camera obscura has been transformed into a small light-tight cardboard box, painted black inside, with a small "pin-hole" aperture in one side and photo-sensitive paper or sheet film on the oth er.

Another one of her cameras is a Super D Graflex, an ingeniously designed early camera (circa 1920s-30s) that she has modified by adding a pin-hole aperture to the lens.

What the pin-hole camera offers Ms. Thorne-Thomsen is an infinite depth of field - everything is in equal focus. She gathers photographs of various objects including classical sculpture and creates props out of them, which she then places in poetic juxtaposition in a real landscape. She is often attracted to beaches and sand dunes, but has worked in a variety of environments.

Her art is based on principles of collage - layered elements brought together for their expansive and transformative power. The pin-hole camera images are quite small, requiring the viewer to peer closely into their intimate little spaces; this tends to foster the exotic.

Because we tend to believe in the veracity of the photographic image, the strangeness of her compositions disorients us for a bit. Then we must question what is "real" about the photographic image. Ruth Thorne-Thomsen is thus engaged in stretching the limits of our perceptions, of our conventional sense of the "real."

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