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Zen and Fine Art Photography

Bill Pierson's visions at Piante


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William S. "Bill" Pierson thinks big. The photography exhibition he's hanging in Eureka's Piante Gallery is a collection of large prints, each one 2 by 3 feet, all new work. The show's title, "Visions of the Universe," is as expansive as the print size.

Pierson is marking 40 years in photography, most of that time doing his own printing in the darkroom and working exclusively in black and white.

"I was all film until something like seven years ago," he said, settling into a Craftsman-style chair in his spacious studio above First Street Gallery on Eureka's waterfront. He says he resisted the transition to digital long after the cameras and software like Photoshop became fairly sophisticated, mainly because he wasn't satisfied with the printing available. High quality gallery-ready digital printing was expensive enough to put it out of reach for most artists. When Epson came out with a large-format semi-pro digital printer, Pierson took the leap.

"I was essentially a computer virgin," he admitted. However, "after all those years in the darkroom, I knew what I wanted to do. I just had to learn how to do it. The principals were the same: controlling contrast, dark and light, all those things."

Hia major turning point came with a Piante show of large digital prints of photos he'd shot in Italy and tweaked to some degree using Photoshop. Expansive landscapes printed on large sheets of photo paper in various sizes shimmered with golden Mediterranean light. He became a convert.

Today, an Epson printer the size of a desk is central in his studio. Artist's proofs for work for the new show fill the wall behind it.

The new show is reminiscent of Pierson's earlier black and white darkroom work. While all the prints are in color, the palate is mostly monochromatic.

Many of the images are of light on water. "It's all about light. And I've been seduced by water for years," he said. "If I'm not taking photos of water, it's clouds, which are a form of water."

Pieces include "Spheres," with post-splash waves in concentric circles. Another photo, "The Center," parallels it with a combination of time-lapse shots showing the stars and the Milky Way circling Polaris, the North Star. "Now" shows an intriguing cloud formation framed by trees, shot behind his Freshwater home.

"We all see the world differently," he said. "I'm trying to hone in on the energy behind it all, the power behind it all."  

The show's title, Visions of the Universe, came to him in the middle of the night. "It scared me at first," he said with a laugh. "I thought, that's a lot to explain. Then I realized I didn't have to. As I said, we all see things in a different way. Artists try to make that visible, like, 'This is what I see.' It's always personal. So it's not the vision, it's my vision of the universe."

He explained that part of that vision is what's known as "the Zen view." The notion was used in a photo class exercise when he cut a square hole in a matt board and essentially used it as a viewfinder. Isolating details makes you focus on the essential. "It's amazing how much more clearly you see when you eliminate the things competing with something," said Pierson. His photo "Zen" is a very Zen image of light and shadows on a pair of gentle waves.

He says he does not really set out with pre-conceived notions when he takes his camera out. "I don't steer myself. You just let your perception tell you when the moment is, and then you end up heading in certain directions. In the end, it becomes a show and you hope it's a step forward." It definitely is.

Visions of the Universe runs March 1 through April 15 at Piante Gallery, 620 Second St. in Eureka's Old Town. Pierson has been an underwriter for Sue Natzler's Piante Gallery for around 10 years.

He's also the patron behind one of Humboldt's only competitive photography exhibitions, the annual Northwest Eye regional fine art photography competition and exhibition coming up in April at the Morris Graves Museum. Pierson started it with the Humboldt Arts Council because he wanted to see photography get its due and in particular to see photos displayed with the respect shown to other artwork.

This year's 12th annual Northwest Eye show runs from April 3 through May 19 in the Graves' Thonson Gallery. A $1,000 grand prize winner will be chosen by noted Sonoma County photographer Fred Parker, who will also select five $250 "best of show" winners. Entries will be accepted from noon until 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, at the Morris Graves Museum of Art. For further details or to download the call for entries forms, go to and click on "juried shows." Then go out and click that shutter. Capture that essential moment.


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