Media Literacy week at the NCJ presents a welcome opportunity to reflect on the critic's (frequently misunderstood) role. The critic, here at least, is neither judge nor booster nor native interpreter nor PR flack — just a person who narrates their experience of art in public. In doing so, the critic models the form (but never the content!) of the viewer's potential encounter with the artwork.
Viewers co-create the works of art they view. Critics strive to express that experience and make it live on the page. "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" the Irish modernist William Butler Yeats wondered circa 1926. In an era where dancer and dance are always intertwined, narrating the total experience might mean faithfully representing things like bodily movements, stray breezes and dreams or memories that emerge as part of the experience.
William Pierson's new exhibition of photographs at Piante Gallery is titled Diary of an Artist because he wanted to emphasize his images' role as markers of time. "It is the moment in time that is the subject of inquiry, and so that momentary event is primary. The subject matter is secondary to that moment of seeing and revelation," Pierson said. Pierson remembered being struck by the way digital image files are time-stamped, feeling it was important to make that moment of photographic inception a part of every image title because "that moment of seeing is something to be celebrated."
The photographs he shows here, titled with the times and places they were made, form an autobiographic archive. The author is never represented, though viewers share his point of view from one moment to the next. Many images are land- or seascapes. Others show graced microevents in nature when some combination of matter, light and energy takes shape, organizing itself inexplicably into symmetry or pattern. Dark gold frames recall the color of heaven in a Byzantine mosaic, also speaking to this preoccupation with transcendence.
Sunlit ocean views and night skies shot with the transit of stars were recorded from vista points including the artist's home in Kneeland, Waialea Bay in Hawaii, points on the Sonoma coast and a lookout tower in the Six Rivers National Forest. There are also isolated scenes from nature, cropped so composition becomes largely abstract. Current ripples in the wake of a swimming sea lion. Crows throng around a solitary redwood in a funnel cloud. A phosphorescent jellyfish floats on the Pacific's glowing swell, reflecting ice blue light from within.
When he photographs the sky at night, Pierson places the camera on a tripod for exposures that may last minutes or hours. Even when movement of the major celestial bodies can be planned in advance, he notes, "there's an element of surprise" when working with such lengthy exposures. "You never know quite what you're going to get." Each long exposure becomes a roll of the dice, an opportunity to court chance inside parameters. In images titled "Completion," "From the Heavens" and "Horizon Line at Midnight," stars, planets, meteors and satellites leave blazing trails across the night sky. The effects recall both Caravaggio's "Calling of Saint Matthew" and the poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Other images are the product of rapid exposures that freeze a single decisive moment. In "Fog Break at Dusk," it's the moment when the fog rolls back and an airy series of oceanside eucalyptus trees is silhouetted against waning light. "I would never have managed to photograph that moment if I hadn't been there, waiting," Pierson said. In the sky view "Free Fall," a ring of milky light haloes the sun as it shines through cloud cover on an overcast day. What makes the composition, the artist told me, is its most unpredictable element — the crow that falls unexpectedly out of the sky, frozen in flight like a small black arrow pointing to the composition's center.
Like the mid-century nature photographer Ansel Adams, a source of inspiration, Pierson charges his images with contrast and intensity. He goes beyond Adams in embracing expressionist features that are unique to digital photography — for instance, the way you can shoot directly into the sun to produce dramatic contrast effects like those in "Shadows from the Center," in which a glorious corona of rays shoots through a cloud-strewn sky.
Some of the photographs that transmit the strongest sense of in-the-moment epiphany are pure products of the camera: records of sights that, viewed directly, would be inaccessible to the human eye and incompatible with the human experience of time. It speaks to the camera's alchemical powers to say that some of these large-format images conjure a sense of breathless communion, like the kind two people have when they see the same shooting star.
'Diary of an Artist' will be on view at Piante Gallery through Oct. 19. Extended gallery hours are Tuesday - Saturday, noon - 5 pm.
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata. She prefers she/her.