New York artist Barbara Ess is known for photographs made with a pinhole camera, which she has used in her work for nearly two decades. Because of the limited available light and shallow depth of field, the photos are always dark and misty. Everything is out of focus except the very center of the composition, providing there was little or no movement on the part of the subject during the long exposure time the technique requires. The process results in instant atmosphere, which in less capable hands could become gimmicky and trite. But Ess manages to keep her work fresh and exciting by concentrating on the image rather than technique. The 11 untitled photographs in this show are among the most striking she has produced.
In one photo, great expanses of beautifully nuanced black dissolve to a pinkish sky at top center, which illuminates a golden lake. A pair of long, sleek legs diagonally traverses the composition from the lower right toward the center. While the rest of the figure is unseen, the occupant of this sensuous landscape is undoubtedly in the midst of a wonderful dream.
Another dreamlike image shows a girl in a party dress that seems backlit by celestial light. But things can be more unsettling, particularly in the pictures of suburban homes that seem about to be engulfed by fierce storms. One of the most poignant pieces is a multipanel work which hints at a personal meditation on the interconnectedness of art, nature and the photographic process. Here, filling one wall, is a group of nine rectangular images of spotlit organic forms accompanied by a single oval self-portrait.
Barbara Ess, Apr. 23-May 22, 1998, at Curt Marcus, 578 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.