Curatorial Notes by DeWitt Cheng
(edited for length)
Some of the earliest photographic images were of botanical subjects, and the natural world has continued to fascinate photographers with both scientific and poetic inclinations—and sometimes both. There are notable examples from Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes to Robert Mapplethorpe’s lilies.
Irene Imfeld has focused on the worlds of plants and birds in recent years. Of “Zone of Transformation: Nature in the High Desert” (available in book and portfolio form), created during a 2015 residency at Joshua Tree, California, Imfeld writes:
“These abstracted images reveal the intrinsic qualities of nature in the Mojave Desert landscape. But they operate in a liminal environment where identity can be difficult to ascribe, in the transition zone between depiction and abstraction. Maneuvering on the edge of ambiguity can uncover the essence of what’s pictured. . . . the viewer can make space to connect with the world in a new way.”
Imfeld’s combination realism and abstract structure varies, depending on the subject matter. The relatively “straight” portrayals of mushrooms (albeit magnified, and composed with an eye to abstraction) and the sharply rendered bird plumage of the 2014 Vacant Nests series fall nicely within the 150-year tradition of fine art nature photography.
However, the lyrical abstractions enabled by digital technology—duplicating, reversing, superimposing, altering color palettes—are impressionistic, subjective, and decidedly contemporary.
The abstract traceries of the With A Crane’s Eye series (2018) may derive from photographs of plants and grasses, but Imfeld transforms them into pyrotechnic calligraphy like the paintings of Jackson Pollock, both spatially flat and infinitely deep, and perhaps even visionary and ecstatic, if we are allowed to use such terms in our ironic era.
Imfeld’s photographs remind us of John Muir’s advice to anxious urbanites: not to “hike” but to “saunter . . . reverently” in the sainte terre of nature.