San Francisco

Gail Skoff

Lowinsky & Arai

Gail Skoff has always appeared somewhat out of sync, a contemporary photographer with a 19th-century attitude. Skoff has photographed both the romantic and the exotic, from public parks and cafés in Paris to cremation ceremonies in Bali. She handcolors these pictures, making them seem even more temporally disjunctive.

Nevertheless, she has superseded what could be construed as anachronistic pictorialism and the fad of hand-tinting through a convincing fusion of content and technique. Skoff photographs with the balanced and inquisitive perspective of the 19th-century documentarian while her handtinting reaffirms the idea that her idiosyncratic selections are still extant in the technological era.

In this exhibition she showed landscapes taken in Hawaii, Utah, Mexico and the Caribbean. Banks of clouds hang over desolate stretches of untouched beach, and deserts expand to the horizon line. These landscapes are solitary and minimal, unpeopled and delineated only by the horizon. Skoff’s color has become more extreme, changing from its earlier, naturalistic associations to a transformative intent that bears comparison to the contemporary California visionary artists and some of the Luminist painters of the past century. The photographer is a selective realist, balancing natural hues in certain parts of the picture against more extreme colors. The desert may be rendered in natural tones, but the clouds are seen as gold forms. In a Caribbean storm the sky is almost monochromatic, but the sea is a brilliant ultramarine blue that would have made Winslow Homer envious.

Skoff treads a very thin line between vistas that are sensual and evocative, and landscapes that have a garish, picture-postcard prettiness. In a few images her choice of pale lavender and emerald green turn the photographs into clichés. But when her pictures work, as in a Utah scene of cracked earth and blue sky, she achieves a form that is startlingly modern, bringing to mind the unrealities of NASA’s satellite pictures of earth.

Although Skoff and Fitch approach the landscape with widely different techniques, they both render it with a euphoria rooted in an optimism more common to 19th-century American landscape painting. Their visions—which I think are uniquely Californian—perhaps signal a new affirmation, a deliberate turning away from the implied cynicism that has dominated American photography since Robert Frank.

Hal Fischer