“. . . [A]ll I can ever say in words about my photographs; they must stand or fall, as objects of beauty and communication . . .”¹
“ In the tradition of photography, I am a street photographer, working fast, using small cameras.”²
In the years that Ansel Adams first set out trudging across the natural world determined to photograph those wild places he so loved, the tools of the photographic enterprise had not yet acquired the small size and efficiency of modern photographic, developing and reproducing techniques. Moreover, in its infancy, photography was primarily considered the realm of the documentarian. The earliest female practitioners such as portraitist, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), Depression Era photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), and Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), photographer of botanical subjects, also engaged with their craft as chroniclers of the objective world. Today, there is no dearth of photographers who set out to provide subtler forms of imagery that reflect their own impressions and personal sensibilities. In the hands of gifted photographers with well-honed creativity, photography has, finally, emerged from the purely journalistic realm and entered the world of art. A.I.R. (Artist In Residence) Gallery’s current exhibit, Ujjayi’s Journey. comprising Maxine Henryson’s images of daily life in India, gives a visual voice, if you will, to how one woman’s unique emotional depth and perception provide layering to a visual experience of the milieu in which she is at the moment.
Henryson’s formal engagement with photography began at the University of Illinois, where she received an M.F.A, followed by a stint at the University of Chicago, where she studied sculpture. An early influence was Joseph Jachna, with whom Henryson worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jachna was a pioneering experimentalist during the late 1960s and early 1970s, incorporating the bodies of his models, and his own body (e.g., his hands), into landscape imagery, confounding focus and subject matter. Henryson also worked alongside renowned portraitist, Richard Avedon. While Avedon’s strong, controlled, largely black and white images of the literati and glitterati graced the pages of couture magazines, Henryson’s unique intuitions regarding color and composition flourished. Avedon recognized her gifts in working with color range, and color and object juxtaposition, encouraging her (in 1994) to photograph the Cirque du Soleil acrobatics; the resulting images were the first color photographs ever reproduced in The New Yorker.
Ujjayi’s Journey (Ujjayi — pronounced Ujaya — translates roughly from the Sanskrit as victorious breath), comprises 17 photographs, taken over the course of several years and visits to India, beginning in 1996. They are street scenes of women participating in religious rites and daily tasks, others are images of objects of religious significance, some are of temples, homes, water, and objects from nature; some are focused normally, others “soft focused,” all depicting an obvious affection for the subject. The specific colors and the range of colors are culture specific; in her own words:
The color palette in each culture reflects the socioreligious, political, economic and environmental constructs of the people in that very specific location.³
As regards techniques of focus:
I use blur and soft focus to raise questions about how we perceive reality.4
In Blue Roses, tones of grey stained with flowery blue hues on a flowing, gauzy curtain provides a sanctuary from the bold, glowing sun, visible behind it. The overall image is one of intimacy. With a basic color palette of cool, bluey shadows, save for the sun’s warming gold, this is a photograph of spatial and personal intimacy, of solace and of contrast. Like a palimpsest, the curtain reveals but a moment of the sun’s passage through the day, outside.
Deities is a pictorial segment of a wall in a temple, with a slightly soft focus. The angle of the photograph is aslant, as if taken by a visitor while in motion. The image has an organic quality inasmuch as an array of framed portraits provides golden, brownish, yellowish and ruby patinas to a white wall. Sprays of blue reflections wash over the image from elsewhere around the room. The slight blurring effectively enhances the sanctuary mood and adds a bit of mystery to the unknowns, depicted on the wall.
In Pink Sari, amidst the flow of daily life, Henryson has captured the mesmerizing kinship amongst women. At the image center, women are clustered on a platform at water’s edge. Behind them, the horizon line between water and sky is obliterated amidst blues, hazy pinks and greys. The pinks, yellows, white, and a dash of golden saffron, a pastiche of pastels that comprises the shapes of the women’s lovely saris, is the core idea of the photograph; the draping of the garments, their colors, the clothing of women. The very soft focusing unites the individuals in a shared moment, no matter the activity. Oneness of purpose; oneness in sensibility. Compositionally, the image reflects the balance and harmony of its subject.
Maxine Henryson’s works have been widely exhibited in galleries from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg, Russia, Boston to Heidelberg, Germany, and beyond. Her works depict marksmanship in her craft; deft manipulation of focus, image production, film and angle. She has managed, in the course of her studies, practices and works, to move toward a photographic mode that invites the viewer into the experience itself, to share, with her, the broader milieu in which the subjects reside. Henryson concedes a perceived connection with, and influences on, her work by painters Edoard Vuillard, Joan Mitchell and others, insofar as the nature and idea of artistic imagery is concerned, and her photographs have been called “ painterly.” This is an unnecessary comparison that derives from the historical and chronological primacy of painting, and assumes photography’s inability to create images that have depth of meaning beyond the visible world. Clearly, Henryson’s work has achieved, through photography — form, color, composition — a body of work that is art, distinct and her own.
Maxine Henryson: Ujjayi’s Journey
111 Front 5 Street
Brooklyn, New York 11201
May 29 – June 22, 2014
¹ 1979. Adams, Ansel. Ansel Adams: Yosemite and the Range of Light. Foreword. Little, Brown and Company
² In conversation with the author at A.I.R. Gallery, June 3, 2014
³ 2012. A conversation with Maxine Henryson by Mario Kramer. In: Ujjayi’s Journey. Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin
Images courtesy of Maxine Henryson
Ann Rebecca Bleefeld received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Vertebrate Anatomy. She was a staff vertebrate paleontologist for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, published a variety of research papers and lectured in research venues including New York, Beijing and Oslo. Having returned to prior interests, today Dr. Bleefeld is a freelance writer and a member of the New York Press Club. She lives in New York City with her feline companion, Max.
Thanjavur, India 2006
Archival pigment print
36-3/8 x 26-3/4 inches framed
Govardhan, India 2008
Archival pigment print
17-13/16 x 22-7/8 inches framed
Varanasi, India 2008
Archival pigment print
22-7/8 x 17-3/16 inches framed