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New Visions, Antique Lens

Etherton Gallery features the art of old-time photography.

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Bill Wittliff uses a pinhole camera to take dreamy shots of Mexican vaqueros and Arizona saguaros.

Michael O'Neill renders his black-and-white portraits of baby zoo animals in old-fashioned platinum palladium prints.

And Tom Baril laboriously prints from wet-plate collodian negatives to make austere pictures of earth's small wonders.

Taken together, the work of the three photographers, on view at Etherton Gallery, gives a short history of olden-days photographic techniques. A fourth artist in the show, Kate Breakey, also provides a variant on standard contemporary process by painting her photos of dead animals and plants. (See "Remains of the Day," May 2.)

At a time when photography is making a high-tech slide into digitalization and computer printing, all of these artists deliberately use time-consuming old techniques to get the looks they want. The pinhole camera makes every Wittliff picture glow as through a tunnel darkly: The dark perimeters of the soft-edged pictures blurrily frame a central, lighter image. O'Neill's platinum palladium prints, usually reserved for grand subjects, confer a crisp dignity on their animal subjects. Baril's wet-plate glass negatives are the same as those once hauled all over the West by the famous 19th-century expedition photographers, and the technique makes his humble flora the equal of their finely etched canyons.

Pinhole photographer Wittliff is also a screenwriter whose credits include the sweeping miniseries Lonesome Dove, based on the Larry McMurtry novel. If he compressed the novel, a tale as big and broad as Texas, down to the size of a TV screen, in his pinhole prints he similarly evokes entire worlds. Emerging from the dreamy pinhole shadows of "Sueños de Tenochtitlan" is a full-fledged historical drama. Mexican indigenas dance in full regalia, while an Aztec pyramid and a church made by the conquering Christians hover behind. In "Ice Cream Vendor," a man lost in a reverie floats on a bench beneath a darkling sky. Two saguaros become similarly dreamlike in "Saguaros, Tucson, Arizona, January 21st, 2000," shining with a silver light at the end of the dark pinhole tunnel.

New Yorker O'Neill's pictures of baby animals are goo-goo cute, with big eyes and endearing tilts to their curving necks. But there's a dark side to the sweetness: all of these zoo babies are endangered in their natural habitats. O'Neill frequently photographs high-and-mighty humans for magazines, movie actors, politicos and the like, and he quite rightly accords each of his animals the same star treatment. Each furry cutie is formally, and importantly, posed against a plain backdrop, and every whisker, wet nose and feather is rendered in the lovely tones of platinum palladium.

But the god of all the small things in this show is Baril, whose hornet's nest and flowers and fruits glow with an unearthly beauty. Each of these lowly products of the earth is arranged in a still-life composition both lovely and stark: Three roses bend toward one another elegantly; the sharply delineated hornet's nest importantly occupies a front-and-center position. Baril, another New Yorker, has to hand-coat his glass negatives, but all the extra work is well worth the efforts, yielding a texture that's delicate, detailed and delightful.

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