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Ebb and Flow



A small show of photographs by Matt Filar, on view at the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center, reveals another side to an active and versatile local photographer who you might already know through his photos for the Humboldt Crabs and the Mad River Union, his work with the cooperative gallery Ferndale Arts and/or his tenure as head engineering judge for the Kinetic Grand Championship. (His photos of the annual race are currently on view in Eureka at Swanlund's Photography.) Originally from Baltimore, Filar has lived on the North Coast since 1977; in 2002 he left a career in mechanical engineering to pursue photography full-time.

Action shots of local news events and Crabbies on the diamond contrast with the photographs grouped here: serenely composed landscapes and studies of objects in the landscape, with nothing captured on the move. These are somewhat formal, frontal, soundly put together views, plainspoken and harmonious, taken from a consistent height and orientation to the landscape. It is as these pictures had been created to explore the small felicities of the everyday, not going out of their way to catalog nature's grand gestures but noting her graceful little ones. They freeze the throwaway moments in which the world around us organizes itself unexpectedly into non-extraordinary symmetry and beauty: the Wednesday night sunset no one else saw, the silvery gleam of morning light on mudflats.

"The Hammond Bridge and the Mad River" and "Trinity River near Burnt Ranch, California," pleasingly composed, also come across as unpretentious and relatable. In the latter, the boulder-strewn Trinity winds its way through the middle of the picture plane. The former shows the old railroad bridge north of Arcata, seen in foreshortening from a vantage point on the riverbank. Echoes of art history can be discerned. The way the rust-streaked railroad bridge thrusts diagonally across the composition, connecting foreground with middle ground and background, is easy to recognize as modern. The bridge's bold industrial forms and riveted steel construction makes it very similar to railroad bridges that registered as the quintessence of modernity for Claude Monet in the 1870s; for us, the same qualities incubate nostalgia. Today the bridge, which is part of the Hammond Trail, is crossed only by cyclists and pedestrians.

"Cabins: Bridgeville, California," "Fuel Tanks: Fort Bragg, California," and "Boats: Trinidad, California" discover color triads within the landscape in mass-produced serial forms. The first, shot from the oblique three-quarter angle Filar favors, shows a neat series of prefab cabins painted in candy colors that stand out against the dark, dense foliage of the oaks in each cabin's front yard. The other images show sun-bleached, primary-based color sequences elaborated in series of identically shaped but differently hued units: flat-bottomed boats in one instance, industrial-scale fuel tanks in another. In all three photographs the basic reds, blues, yellows and greens in which these metal surfaces were originally painted have become blanched and nuanced through exposure to the California sun. Bleaching and weathering become indicators that nod to the passage of time, providing a neat analogy or metonym for the process of photochemical exposure through which these pictures were made and fixed to paper in the first place.

Other photographs in the exhibition manifest this tendency to zero in on weathered or eroded things. Portraits of waterfront decrepitude like "Boat Carcass, Eureka Slough" and "Sheds at High Tide: Blue Ox Millworks, Eureka, California," show objects that wear their history of use as mute testament to the passage of time. "Low Tide, Arcata Bay" depicts the bay with much of the water drained out of it, the row of eucalyptus on U.S. Highway 101 faintly visible on the horizon through a belt of fog. This photograph recapitulated what I saw outside the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center when I arrived, at ebb tide. As the waters receded, the erratically shaped remainders of eroded wood pilings that used to support the bay's network of 19th century piers came into view. Bits of wooden infrastructure that had long since collapsed into the mud were getting progressively revealed, along with numberless hidey-holes belonging to the tiny fiddler crabs that teem along the channel banks.

Several of these images are characterized by a sensitivity to time and tide that resonates particularly well in this building, cantilevered over tidal mudflats. The center's busy, cluttered interior and spectacular views make it a distracting place to look at art. Yet this viewing experience, while challenging, also has the potential to be rewarding. Viewers can turn from the photographs, look through a floor-to-ceiling window, and watch the real-time processes of ebb and flow that several of these pictures document. A more extensive exhibition structured as an exploration of tidal ebb and flow would be well worth viewing in this setting.

Photographs by Matt Filar will be on display through August at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary Interpretive Center, 569 S. G St., Arcata. The center is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm., and Mondays between 1 and 5 pm. For more information, call (707) 826-2359.

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