The first thing that grabs your attention in the eye-popping landscape show at Etherton Gallery is the color.
Lynn Taber's radiant pastel skies are positioned across from Jack Dykinga's deserts, photographed in deeply pigmented color. And in the small gallery up front, serving as a gateway to the crayon-brights of these two contemporary artists, are the more subtle colorations of Eliot Porter.
There's not an austere Ansel Adams black-and-white in the bunch.
Dykinga lives in Tucson, but he's known nationally, if not internationally, as a world-class nature photographer whose works eloquently argue for environmental preservation. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for a feature photo long ago, Dykinga has at least eight books in print. His photos appear regularly in National Geographic and Arizona Highways.
His 15 Southwestern images in this three-person show, appropriately christened A Radiant Land, lovingly picture all of the usual features of our cherished landscape: the saguaro, the peaked mountains, the stone canyons. But Dykinga rarely traffics in clichés. Instead, he translates the familiar land into compositions so original that they're occasionally hard to decipher.
Arizona's slot canyons readily lend themselves to these puzzling abstractions. His "Death Hollow" has slanting canyon walls and a tumbling tree trunk, all finely textured and richly colored in sky-blue, gray and ocher. The composition is arresting and borders on the surreal. It's unclear what's going on here—or what's going where—and even which way is up.
Likewise, the fractured lines of the dry desert floor fan out all over "Life From Clay," and purple flowers bloom in the cracks. There's no sky, no horizon, nothing to give us our bearings in this abstracted space.
Even the familiar saguaro gets the Dykinga shock treatment in "Saguaro." The photog has found a specimen with an arm that curves downward into a circle. Inside that circle, in the distance, his camera has captured a perfect full-sized saguaro. It's no easy task, at first, to sort out the framing saguaro from the miniaturized saguaro inside it.
"North Canyon" succeeds in giving us a wholly original image of the Grand Canyon, a place among the most overexposed on Earth. Dykinga is way down at the bottom, down on the Colorado River. He switches the canyon photographer's usual focus away from the glorious walls, and zeroes in instead on coppery rocks planted in the swirling blue and white waters. The famous canyon itself is reduced to a background: vertical bands of color, in brown, sun-yellow and rust.
Somewhere—in Arizona?—Dykinga found a lily pond to rival Monet's, and he aims his camera right at the water. The rippling surface becomes a pattern painting. Yellow and violet lily pads float on water that reflects the towering trees above.
Taber, also of Tucson, has made the skies of Baja Arizona her life's work. She's entranced by their fiery colors, their long expanses, their infinite distances. A pastel artist who gets luminous color out of her chalks, Taber pastel-paints the Sonoran skies in every season, at dawn, at sunset, in fair weather and foul. Most of the time, she seems to be looking on this splendor from a high perch, on a footing nearly equal to the heavens.
Her 26 pastels on paper in the show are presented unmatted, in antique frames. Pictures like "Lost in the Moment" and "Awaiting Your Return" are fairly faithful representations of the celestial light shows that regularly entertain Southern Arizonans. "Lost" has orange cirrus clouds skipping across a pale-blue expanse. "Awaiting," wading into metaphorical territory, records the light returning after a storm.
Like Dykinga, though, Taber sometimes takes liberties with nature, turning the familiar into the unknown. She often divides up her skies, slicing them through with geometric bands of color.
"A Thousand Times a Day" riffs on the skies as they really are, with great puffs of orange clouds floating above the blue. But Taber doubles the fun, adding a second sky of pale yellow and wispy azure beneath the first, emphasizing the abstraction by dividing the skies with a couple of horizontal cerulean stripes.
"Time Stood Still" simplifies the splendor. A lone pink cloud, roughly drawn, floats alone on a nearly flat royal-blue background. A lone ocher line separates the sky from the brown earth below.
Sometimes, Taber gives up color altogether. "Once in a While," a stormy-sky-over-sea picture, is a gripping piece in pure black and gray, shot through with flashes of white light.
Eliot Porter (1901-1990) was a photographic eminence, the brother of the modern realist painter Fairfield Porter. The family hailed from Long Island and Maine, but Eliot Porter roamed the globe, from Africa to Antarctica, recording the beauties of the wilderness. Like Dykinga, Porter was an environmentalist who consciously used his images to promote conservation. (In 1962, he released a photography book with the pointed title In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.)
Early on, under the influence of Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, Porter shot in black and white, but later turned to color. His dye-transfer technique yielded lush and subtle hues nothing like the vibrant tones achieved by contemporary photogs like Dykinga. The understated colors look almost velvety on the paper.
Showing Porter for the first time, proprietor Terry Etherton rounded up 14 of his Western works, vintage prints dating from the 1950s and '60s. Also included are two photos of beautiful flowering trees in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Western pieces catalog the region's standard natural wonders. A waterfall tumbles down the etched rock of a canyon wall; a rock cliff reflected in water creates a mirror image. But Porter's versions are classics, light years above the postcard cliché.
Many photogs have taken a shot at capturing stone formations that curve over a desert floor, as sensuously as a woman's body. Porter's version, "Lava Boulders," in Utah, is particularly fine. The boulders are delicately textured; their winding S curve is tinted a pale pink.
His "Blooming Cactus" is a small masterpiece. Shot in Baja California, this landscape in earth greens and golds is surprisingly soft-edged, an effect, perhaps, of the humid air wafting in from the nearby sea. A human-made dirt road zigzags off into the distance, disappearing in some sloping mountains.
Front and center is the cactus. Apparently a close cousin on the Sonoran saguaro, it's green but heavily bearded with black prickers. A few white cactus flowers are blooming at the top. In front, another cactus curves in a circle back to the earth, presaging Dykinga's circular saguaro.
But Porter's cactus is black, and it's dead. It may be just a reminder of the cycles of life and death in nature. Or it could be a sentinel, warning that wildness can easily be compromised (there's that road, after all), and even destroyed.