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The Arts

Quest for beauty

Perception, memory, space, time: An artist explores the unexpected aspects of ordinary objects

Sally Apfelbaum: Photographs, Photograms and Paintings is on view at the Vermont Center for Photography, 49 Flat St., Brattleboro. Information: 802-251-6051,,,,

BRATTLEBORO—With subjects that range from New York’s Ellis Island and upstate forests, to Monet’s garden in Giverny, France, 30 of Sally Apfelbaum’s works made between 1987 and 2012 are on display until Sept. 2 at the Vermont Center for Photography.

Apfelbaum, a photographer and painter whose work has been shown in collections internationally, has taught as a visiting artist at Middlebury College, Cooper Union, Parsons School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Apfelbaum primarily considers herself a photographer.

“I was trained as a photographer, and while I have an interdisciplinary approach to making art — I have sculpted and I paint — I really love photography,” she said.

“Photography is still a young medium, with so many possibilities for experimentation and expression that suit me,” she says.

Layers of information

In creating her photographs, Apfelbaum says, she “uses multiple exposure techniques that isolate and recombine basic elements of color, focus, horizon line, motion, and distance.”

Her process of mingling layer upon layer of information creates the suggestion of shifts in perception, memory, and time — and spaces that are at once believable and engaging, yet ephemeral and invented.

Her photograms, on the other hand, reflect her appreciation of familiar household objects, taken out of context to reveal the elaborate shapes and patterns.

Michael Langford in Basic Photography explains that a photogram is “a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.”

“The usual result is a negative shadow image that shows variations in tone that depends upon the transparency of the objects used,” Langford continues. “Areas of the paper that have received no light appear white; those exposed through transparent or semi-transparent objects appear grey.”

Apfelbaum wryly claims that the reason she started to make photograms was because she would do anything to be able to work outside.

“My photograms are made with direct exposure from the sun, on printing-out paper,” she says. “I work with domestic and found objects, such as coffee filter baskets, rug beaters, pillow fluffers, pie plates, cooking utensils, and automobile parts.”

“By isolating them and taking them out of their usual contexts, I hope to reveal qualities that surprise us,” she says.

The paintings in the exhibit are derived from large-format black-and-white photographs she made of flowers she had grown. “Or from flowers that I see and like,” she adds.

These paintings are accompanied by definitions from Victorian-era “Language of Flowers” dictionaries, which detail the symbolic meaning of these flowers.

“Beauty is important to me,” she says, “mainly as a way of truly inhabiting what we see.” She believes that all of her art “reflect[s] my ongoing interest in finding meaning and beauty in ordinary things, many of them from the natural world.”

“The quest for beauty is what drives me,” she continues. “But it is a contemporary kind a beauty. I believe each age has its own concept of beauty.”

She considers beauty an epistemology through which “beauty functions as a way to understand the world,” she says.

Apfelbaum grew up on a farm and claims that she has has always been attracted to nature, but nature in a specific sense.

“Pure Nature is elusive,” she says. “What I call ‘Nature,’ I actually mean ‘acclimated nature.’”

“You see, people have always defined nature differently. When I lived in France, I was told that nature could be found in a grand park outside of Paris, a space with manicured gardens and fountains.

“Of course, very few of us would define that as pure nature.”

Monet’s garden

Her love of nature has drawn her to working in public spaces.

One of her most special experiences in this light was working as artist in residence at Monet’s Garden through a Reader’s Digest/College Arts Association Giverny Grant, in 1989.

“It strikes people kind of funny that Reader’s Digest would be interested in contemporary art but, in fact, the magazine has had a long legacy of supporting it,” she says.

“Each year, three artists were given an apartment in Giverny, a studio, a car, and a key to Monet’s celebrated garden in France. I was the first photographer ever invited for such an honor.

“Giverny is a one-street town, and we artists there felt rather like pheasants under glass. But we really got to know the place and its people, and I have often gone back to visit them.

“Most don’t realize how small Monet’s garden is,” she adds. “It is less than an acre, and even that is divided by a highway. On one side is Monet’s house with its wild and formal gardens. On the other is the Japanese garden and pond. Everywhere you turned there were the inspirations for Monet’s paintings.

“But in some ways it was a strange place. This idyllic retreat was continually being disrupted by the noise of trucks rolling by on the highway, whose vibrating motors shook the ground so much that I could not take photographs on Monet’s famous Japanese bridge.”

“Since the time when I applied for it, the Giverny Grant has been taken over by the United Nations’ Educational Department, and I am afraid is now open by invitation only,” Apfelbaum says. “I found the process before more democratic.”

Remaining authentic

As she always has done in past exhibitions, Apfelbaum is including in her Brattleboro show two images from her initial visit to Giverny, as well as some photographs from when she went back in 2002.

She considers an important part of the show mixing black and white photographs with ones in color. She sometimes even uses the very same image, displaying both, one side in back and white, and the other in color. She wants to engage the viewer to double check what they are observing.

“We are bombarded with photographic images in our modern world, and I work hard to remain authentic,” she says.

“I am a landscape photographer whose work can seem so so subtle that it may be overlooked,” Apfelbaum says. “I try to find ways to engage viewers to see familiar objects in a new light.”

“I strive to express what is worth saying,” she says. “The essence of what I do, what is important to me, is to communicate in a vital and genuine way.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #166 (Wednesday, August 22, 2012).

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