February 14, 2010
Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, Massachusetts
January 21 – March 28, 2010
Long known for her underwater photography by available light alone, Karen Glaser has recently produced two contrasting yet complementary bodies of work, one focusing on sharks, the other on rays. While the rays are printed on slightly mottled, long fiber Kozo paper, each pale image a mere six by nine inches, the sharks inhabit sheets of photo rag four times this size. All are monochrome. If the rays evoke delicate aquatints—Light Rays (2007) looking like bleached Japanese kites—the sharks bring to mind the stippled darkness of giant mezzotints.
Convinced that humans have long had a visceral associative relationship with these primeval creatures from a murky and scarcely accessible realm, Glaser presents them in two registers. Several of her prints of rays show them clearly from above, the rocky or sandy ocean floor giving them a naturalistic cast. Others, notably her sharks, appear as shadows that have emerged from our psyches. No other work suggests so convincingly that we might well carry within ourselves profound psychic traces of our aquatic origins. Glaser sees this as a long-term human constant, and provokes us to consider ourselves direct heirs to our earliest ancestors who mastered the art of visual representation. In several prints she explicitly evokes the subterranean world of Upper Paleolithic art, even giving one the title Cave Painting (2007). In this work and in several others, the granularity of enlargement suggests an uneven surface, like that of living rock, on which scarcely discernible forms of sharks and other fish hover. Such images are indeed reminiscent of rock art produced over many millennia, including the maybe six thousand-year-old silhouettes on the walls of the celebrated “Cave of the Swimmers” at Wadi Sora, Egypt.
Although all are enveloped in near darkness, Glaser’s sharks vary in the ways they appear to be the subjects of waking dreams. Some of her hammerheads swim in a soup of photo grain as sinuous, shadowy silhouettes, suggesting no recession (Big School, 2008). In other prints, sharks swirl together as a complex disposition of forms conveying depth in liquid space (Whale Shark, 2007). Most disturbingly, we see no obvious signs of danger. There are no appraising eyes, no threatening teeth. Sinuous muscularity alone reminds us of our helplessness. Only subtle tonal variation along its body conveys the casual ease with which a shark might deliver death (Dark Shark and Silver Tip, 2008).
Glaser traveled to remote Pacific waters off the coasts of America, North and South, to swim with these remarkable creatures. Working first with her camera, and then with her enlarger in successive sites of tenebrous gloom, she visits profound reaches of our evolutionary origins.