Formal Intervention

Photographer Marjorie Gillette Wolfe seeks the simple and direct composition, with ambiguity

Written by Hank Hoffman

Majorie Wolfe. Image courtesy of Ms. Wolfe.

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had his “decisive moment.” Cheshire photographer Marjorie Gillette Wolfe had her “a-ha! moment.” For Wolfe, the decisive “a-ha!” came during her junior year at Rhode Island School of Design in 1969.

RISD instituted a six-week winter semester that year between the fall and spring semesters. The idea, Wolfe says, was to encourage students to explore something completely outside their majors for the whole session. Wolfe, who was a painting major, chose photography.

“I was blessed to have Harry Callahan as my teacher. Harry’s reputation was already out there by the late 1960s. I did nothing but photography for six weeks,” Wolfe tells me in an interview at her Cheshire home.

She had an epiphany: “I should have majored in photography! But it was too late to start over.”

Over the past decade and a half, Wolfe’s work has been shown in numerous solo and duo shows and juried and invitational exhibitions. Her beautiful and thought-provoking landscapes have garnered first honors and awards at Images, Art of the Northeast, New Canaan Society for the Arts, and the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts.

Wolfe declares in her artist statement, “I am especially attracted to minimal landscapes that confound perspective and allow for a contemporary view of what can be a well-worn subject.”

For Wolfe, the term “landscape” is artfully stretched to include architectural structures that appeal to her fascination with graphic abstraction.

When she finished college, Wolfe started teaching high school art classes in Wallingford — “my first and last job.” Along with teaching general art courses, Wolfe taught photography, having only her six-week intensive study at RISD to guide her. Over the next 20 years, the demands of family and teaching took precedence over establishing a photographic career. But in the early 1990s, Wolfe took a weeklong intensive workshop on Martha’s Vineyard with well-known landscape photographer Alison Shaw.

“Working with her was a great pleasure. It changed my life. It was nothing but photography from six in the morning until 11 at night for a week. That intense experience drew me out of what had been a latent interest in being a photographer. It was after 1993-94 that I was able to put together enough work to even begin to consider myself a photographer and apply to be in exhibits,” Wolfe recalls.

Wolfe handles all aspects of the process — shooting and printing, retouching in Photoshop, matting, and framing — herself. She says she crops very little, preferring to compose her images through her viewfinder. For that reason, her choice of equipment — a new camera, a different lens — often strongly impacts her composition. Her wide-angle lens, Wolfe says, is her primary lens and “has a huge influence over my slightly skewed sense of the world.” Her way of seeing was affected by her acquisition of the medium format Hasselblad in the late 1990s, with its square frame, and again recently by the switch to digital and the concomitant return to the rectangular format. (Wolfe does note that she still sometimes sees particular subjects as being suited to a square frame and composes and crops accordingly.)

“What I’m looking for in the land and surroundings is that simple and direct composition — areas that are not complicated, just a few elements,” Wolfe says.

As a corollary to the landscapes, Wolfe started photographing greenhouses. She tells me, with bemused pride, that Cheshire is known as “the bedding plant capital of the Northeast,” a moniker that has nothing to do with mattresses. With over 1,000 greenhouses, the small town sells plants to big-box retailers throughout the New England region.

“Because I was a teacher at a high school, I was up very early. As I drove to work, I would pass a lot of greenhouses with light passing through them and I was stunned by their beauty,” Wolfe explains.

Wolfe shows me her first greenhouse photo from 1999. In Kurtz 1, taut poly film fabric with dripping inner condensation stretches over a curved black metal rib beneath a cloud-dappled sky. Wolfe saw tremendous potential in the greenhouses as subjects, most notably in isolating formal elements from the whole. Wolfe is especially interested in photographing through random cuts made in the fabric, finding disorienting compositions where viewers are challenged to make sense of what they see. The greenhouse images, according to Wolfe, are an extension of her landscape work, exploring the same fascination with “simple graphic shapes.” I note that her greenhouse photos tend to be much more abstract and ask whether she sees her work as having two distinct but complementary strains — abstract and documentary.

“Definitely, but I know what I’m seeing. It’s very rare that someone looks at a greenhouse photo and I can’t explain what’s happening. I really enjoy ambiguity and it occurs in both the landscapes and the greenhouses,” says Wolfe.

This ambiguity is present in Blighted Trees, a landscape image shown at the ALL Gallery in New Haven in 2008, that was shot from the ground up through a circle of pine trees denuded by hurricane winds. I noted in a blog review at the time, “The sky is so stark, in fact, that I could entertain the optical illusion that I was looking from above down through trees rooted in snow.”

“Someone asked me about five years ago, ‘When are you going to stop photographing greenhouses?’ And I looked at him and thought, Never! Every year when I go back, in those six weeks when I can shoot, it’s a year anew, a new approach. Something has happened, which influences what I’m seeing that year,” says Wolfe.

Near Salat. Courtesy of Marjorie Wolfe.

Wolfe says she “knew the digital age was here” but resisted until 2007 when she got a digital camera to take with her on a trip to Israel. She brought along her beloved Hasselblad medium format camera to Israel, too, “but in truth, the work was done digitally.” She still has her postage stamp-sized basement darkroom and her Hasselblad, but hasn’t used them since 2007. Going digital opened up new photographic vistas for Wolfe. Perhaps the most profound was using color in her photographs, which, she says, “was terrifying.”

“And here I was a painting major! Certainly, I understood color — I had been a teacher for 37 years — but using color in photography was something I reserved for family snapshots. And I loved black and white, and still do. A lot of my work is still black and white — shot in color but transposed into black and white,” says Wolfe.

Wolfe debuted color work in a duo show with photographer Hank Paper at the Kehler Liddell Gallery in the spring of 2008. Half of her images from Israel in the show were in color and half in black and white. As I noted in a blog post on Wolfe’s Israel: Time and Diversity show in 2008, she approached “the addition of color to her imagery much as a chef might experiment with adding a new seasoning to a cuisine — starting with a pinch and not a tablespoon.”

The digital transition also afforded Wolfe the ability to composite images, printing multiple related images on one long piece of paper. Her small darkroom hadn’t allowed her to work on large prints, much less oversize ones. With composited images — particularly with the added element of color — Wolfe can highlight a broader palette of formal relationships.

“I can put together three photographs, three separate shots, different sizes, and make them work as a unit,” Wolfe says.

Recently, finding working with the different shapes on a piece of paper to be unwieldy, she has tried a different approach. She prints each image separately with 11Ž2-inch white borders, puts them in white frames, and installs them next to one another as a unit.

And, as part of a show with six other photographers at the Kehler Liddell Gallery this past October, Wolfe dipped her toes into the waters of figurative photography. In her series of seven Pond photographs from Martha’s Vineyard, Wolfe — shooting through her wide-angle lens with her camera held close to the surface of a shallow pond to emphasize distance — incorporates bathers as formal elements relative to the simple composition of sky, water, and horizon.

The horizon seems to be the organizing principle with the figures, be they few or many, registering as disturbances within a serene natural order. In The Pond: Wave, an overcast gray sky and softly undulating brown water meet at a dark horizon. Wolfe positioned herself such that bathers in the middle distance register as small vertical marks against that thick horizontal line.

In her living room, pointing to an austere image shot at Sepiessa Point on Martha’s Vineyard — sky, horizon, water, and nothing more — Wolfe says, “If you took the people out of the photographs, what you would have is just that. But I loved the people in them.”

Wolfe notes, “It’s the kind of work I thought I’d never be able to exhibit because it doesn’t fit into a body of work.”

The impromptu photo show — occasioned because a planned exhibit had to be cancelled — offered Wolfe “the opportunity to do something completely different.”

Whether this turns out to be another “a-ha!” moment for Wolfe remains to be seen.

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