New York

Sally Gall

Lieberman & Saul Gallery

Given the almost suffocating omnipresence of photography, it’s hardly surprising that the rhetorical structures of the medium have become as familiar as they have. Anybody who watches television or goes to the movies learns to distinguish the meaning of certain croppings or camera angles with an enormous, though often unconsciously exercised, sophistication. Only a very narrow range of expressive formal devices is acceptable, however, when photography performs the societal task of defining and reporting on reality. Other technical traits that are equally inherent to photography—at least in some of the many forms it can take—are excluded from the normative version of the medium that is considered “straight” photography.

Like many other artist-photographers, Sally Gall relies on just such excluded techniques in making her pictures. While printing, she diffuses the light before it hits the paper, using a pane of textured glass. In this way, she blocks up the pictures’ tonal highlights, causing them to seep past the borders of the objects they describe. Unfortunately, the effect is a familiar one, often used to imply things seen in a dream or in the mists of memory. Gall heightens these qualities by choosing subject matter that is equally familiar: the carefully trimmed shrubbery, glistening classical statues, and placid lawns of formal gardens; and lush, idyllic landscape scenes. The pictures of formal gardens, in particular, are suffused with nostalgia for a lost lifestyle that can be seen as arcadian or aristocratic, depending on your particular brand of romanticism.

At the same time there’s a sense of malaise, of disturbing queerness, to some of the pictures—for example, the ones that feature topiary bushes that look like peculiarly shaped hats, as in Hever Castle and Blenheim, both 1980. Gall’s technique adds to the melodramatic qualities of these scenes, and her choice of subjects suits the particularities of her style. Several pictures show trees reflected in water, the surface of which is blurred slightly by motion; in one of these, Pool/Garden, 1986, the trees and their reflection are matched in a delicate and compelling symmetry. Occasionally the photographs achieve the limpid beauty of landscapes by such 19th-century European photographers as Edouard Baldus or Robert MacPherson. More often, though, they are marked by the sentimentality and self-conscious prettiness of much of the work of the Photo-Secession, that turn-of-the-century group of photographer-esthetes. And at their most familiar, Gall’s pictures look like outtakes from Alain Resnais’ film Last Year at Marienbad, or even location shots for perfume ads. Other photographers these days are working ground that’s similar both in technique and subject matter—the Starn Twins, for example, rely on subjects as nostalgic as Gall’s. But such devices have become so familiar that it’s difficult, and at the same time essential, for photographers to discover some fresh twist of meaning—ironic or otherwise—within them.

Reviewed by Charles Hagen.