WITH THE CLICK of its shutter, the camera captures a tiny slice of time made visible, focusing light waves, or individual photons -- take your pick, quantum freaks -- on the medium of film. Thus a photograph is an instant monument, if you will, to the fleeting moment, great or small, that is invariably and immediately lost forever in the shifting sands of eternity.
Photographer Lynn Davis seems to understand this, arguably photography's most noble aspect. An extensive exhibit of her recent African work currently on display at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography welds the moment and the monumental together in click after click. These are large, serious photographs, black and white, dramatically sepia or gold toned for an additional whiff of the dust of ages. Mostly devoid of people, they take as their subject the eternal, or what is nearly eternal, in the harsh landscape of the mother of all continents.
The Center for Creative Photography organized this touring exhibition with the funding support of Marcia and Richard Grand, Mary A. Goodman, Westward look Resort and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
Intellectually at least, the works flow naturally from the pyramids of Egypt to the more humble, but wildly exotic mud structures of sub-Saharan Africa, with the odd modern water tower or other structure thrown in for good measure, and on to the immediacy of the moment in several lovely closeup studies of sinuous, misty Victoria Falls. (When the shutter stays open for a second or longer, you can actually see in these water prints the tracks of time as a mystical penumbra twisting, turning and flowing into beautiful oblivion.)
Through it all, and with the exception of several seemingly timid attempts at photographing people, Davis exhibits a dead-bang perfect eye for composition in the 2-and-a-quarter-square format of her Rollie camera. This format, supremely calm and dignified in its eternal symmetry, provides the perfect field for Davis' pyramid studies.
The pyramids are photography's touchstones. Among the first subjects of the early European travel and scenic photographers of the mid-19th century, they have been depicted bazillions of times by now. Davis' striking contribution to this tradition is a bold and powerful stare across the yawing gulf of time to the stone cold geometry that has fascinated both ancient and modern humanity.
When it comes to looking at pyramids, she takes us back to ground zero, eschewing all recent attempts at silly gimmickry -- one thinks of photosurrealist Duane Michaels' pyramid series. She also turns a cold shoulder to the scenic-oriented approach common to National Geographic, whose editors like their pyramids draped in butterscotchy, late-afternoon or early-morning light on fields rampant with camels and bedouin. Such a commercial approach reduces these alarmingly ancient structures to mere eye candy for the casual page-flipper. If such sensibilities were to have their way in a museum, they'd undoubtedly drape the parched and mummified remains of Ramises II in colorful Christmas paper and shuck the old goat out on a tour of America's shopping malls.
While there are a couple of tiny camels and a turbaned figure or two in the far left-hand foreground of one of Davis' photographs, "Giza III, Dynasty IV, 1989," they serve only to accentuate the immense proportions of this 4,000-year-old enigma set in stone. On the right, balancing the transitory human and animal forms at the base of the pyramid, the distance behind the structure dissolves into dust. While Davis may be tiptoeing to the edge of the hackneyed here, her masterful technique transforms this scene into an eloquent testament to the vastness of time itself, as well as to the utter imperviousness of the ideal (in this case pure geometry) in the human mind.
More impressive in its stripped-bare simplicity is Davis' almost horrific depiction of the Bent Pyramid of Dashur. Printed so darkly it resembles nothing less than a monstrous (45-by-45-inch) tintype thickly tarnished after countless years in some forgotten national mausoleum, this photograph is a superbly economical, starkly dramatic evocation of the incomprehensible millennia that stand between the ancient Egyptians and us. It's almost as if the very stones of this pyramid have been burnt black and are still smoldering from their fantastical journey through time. In fact, there are plenty of ancient Egyptian artifacts that have come down to us looking new as a dimestore doll by comparison.
The printing of these photographs, by Steven Rifkin of Minneapolis, constitutes a superb artistic achievement in its own right. Essentially he takes a negative with roughly the surface area of an Altoids tin and blows it up bigger than the large-screen TV in your neighborhood sports bar, all while maintaining exacting standards of sharpness and tonal graduation. Light and chemistry seldom come together in such superb confluence.
At such great magnification, even the all-but-grainless Tmax film Davis employs breaks down, in this case to appropriate effect. Looking at her giant pyramid photographs, it feels as though one's peering back through a wormhole in space time, miraculously held and magnified by some incredible technology, almost to the point where the quanta of light itself may burst.
Yep, it's easy to get sucked in. But pyramid photos are only one portion of Davis' strikingly definitive work on Africa, much of which appears in the Center's current exhibit and in the book Wonders of the African World by African American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates narrates a three-night PBS documentary of the same title airing on October 25, 26 and 27. Moving color pictures slithering invisibly through the ether to brighten our TV sets is a modern miracle, of course. But one can safely bet Davis' old-fashioned, black-and-white photographs, with their masterful treatment of eternal human themes, will leave a far more lasting impression on your mind's eye.
Africa: Photographs by Lynn Davis continues through December 5 at the Center for Creative Photography, on the south end of the pedestrian underpass at Speedway and Park Avenue. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Center will present the following events in conjunction with this exhibition: Kendahl Radcliffe, UA assistant professor of African studies, will give a gallery talk on "The Coming of Christianity to the Ethiopian Highlands," at 11 a.m. Thursday, October 14. Barbea Williams Performing Company will introduce and lead a participatory event of African music, song and dance for all ages from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday, October 17. Dr. Mamadou Baro, UA assistant professor of anthropology and a specialist in traditional African cultures, will discuss "African Architecture and Belief Systems," at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 20. Also, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 27, Baro will introduce and moderate "African Voices," a discussion by UA students born in Africa. At 2 p.m. Tuesday, November 30, Kendahl Radcliffe will lead a discussion of the novel Segu by Maryse Conde, which explores the slave trade in West Africa, the Islamic Jihad, and the spread of Christianity on that continent from the late 18th through the early 19th century. The public is invited to read Segu and join Radcliffe and her students in a discussion relating the text to exhibition images. Call 621-7968 for information on the exhibition and events.