Everything flows at Argus Museum's photography exhibit “Water Is Life”


Beutler's photo Fogged In

Frederick J. Beutler's Fogged In

Leave it to a museum in a city nestled in a state surrounded in three directions by water to appreciate that Water Is Life. For water is most definitely the topic in display in this expansive photographic exhibit winding its way through the Washtenaw County Historical Society's Argus Museum gallery space.

As curator Cheryl Chidester’s exhibit statement pithily tells us, “Five artists from the Ann Arbor Women Artists used their cameras to capture images that show the diversity, beauty and wonder of water” -- and do they ever.

Local photographers Frederick J. Beutler, Travis Erby, Daniela Gobetti, Sophie Grillet, and Sally Silvennoinen bring a special proficiency to their work at the Argus Museum. By way of professional expression and expertise, each of these talented photographers crafts artistry that’s as unique as a visual fingerprint marking their work as uniquely his or hers.

Indeed, if there’s a special quality that these photographers bring to Water Is Life, it has got to be that remarkable wonder of how each artist’s individual eye crafts its insight through the armature of technological reproduction. After all, the world ought to appear relatively the same to any photographer. But this is simply not the case.

The work of these five professionals is as utterly unique as the individual. And in such close proximity, the viewer can readily see their differences emerge from their studies. If anything, their very professionalism differentiates these artworks in much the same way that a fluent poet can shade nuances through words that the beginner of a language can scarcely comprehend.

Gobetti's photo Primordial Soup

Daniela Gobetti's Primordial Soup

Take, for example, Daniela Gobetti’s seven Hahnemühle Baryta FB inkjet coated black and white Water Ways photographs. A native of Turin, Italy who’s resided in Ann Arbor for many years, Gobetti’s interest in photography resides in what her artist’s statement calls “the structural features of reality. ... What substance has more ‘ways’ than water? Flexible and malleable, it finds its path no matter no matter what you try to do to stop it. It symbolizes life, purity, infinite movement, the passing of time, the transience of things.”

This is certainly the case of Gobetti’s 2018 extraordinary Primordial Soup. Shot in Ann Arbor, the photograph captures undulating waves of water whose evanescent confluence takes up the largest part of the composition with its shimmering peaks and valleys of bubbling crude. Shot against a wall’s stolid, brace propping the water in place, Primordial Soup reflects water’s ephemeral presence in the permanence of life.

By contrast, Sally Silvennoinen says in her artist’s statement, “I enjoy the sound of flowing water. I enjoy seeing that life depends on water. I enjoy the reflection of light that sparkles on the surface of water. I am curious what caused a ripple on the water.”

And nowhere is this awe more apparent than in her colorfully flamboyant Tahquamenon Amber. This Cannon Power Shot SX 410 photograph -- in comparison to 13 other Silvennoinen landscapes placed in various places around the Argus Museum -- is a vivid, quite nearly abstract rendering of this famed waterfall in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s an expert condensation capturing the near-diaphanous striated tannin of the Tahquamenon flow -- no telling if it’s the upper or lower fall -- in all its magnificent curvilinear earth-enriched cascade arching down in a relentless spray.

Ypsilanti-based Travis Erby carries the mantel of photographer as international traveler in this exhibit. In a career spanning a half-century with scholarly stops at Detroit’s Society of Arts and Craft (now known as the College for Creative Studies); Ferris State University in Big Rapids, and Eastern Michigan University -- with teaching assignments at the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake and Washtenaw Community College -- Erby’s seven contributions range from Bora Bora, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Niagara Falls, and here at home in Ypsilanti.

Of Erby’s works, Tranquil was taken at Bora Bora’s Matira Point in the French Polynesian Leeward island group. But the photograph itself is certainly not tranquil. Consisting of two thatched over-water bungalows placed precisely at dusk in the center of the composition, the color photograph is actually an extraordinarily accomplished artwork whose recessed dock leading toward the bungalows also leads the viewer’s eye into the heart of the work. Romance, precise linear perspective, and a practiced eye all make their appearance in Erby’s deceptively accomplished Tranquil.

Cambridge-born, University of Brighton College of Art educated, Ann Arbor resident Sophie Grillet has added 10 color photographs to this exhibit whose expansive vistas are taken at flight covering astonishing landscape topographies whose breadth is nothing less than enthralling. Her views of Egypt, Canada, Greenland, Australia, and Sudan (among others, including the domestic USA) are as geometrically imaginative as they are geologically dexterous.
In particular, Grillet’s LHR>DTW -- Greenland 2017 is a handsome study of mountain peaks poking out white snowbanks where the winding geographic strata twists in and around the otherwise uniform landscape. Dramatic in both its scale and ambition, Grillet’s study does the quite amazing trick of capturing mountainous frozen water at its most abstract through minute observation. It’s proof that an iPhone can yield a masterwork under the right circumstance in the right hands.

Beutler's photo Peggy's Cove

Frederick J. Beutler's Peggy's Cove

Finally, Frederick J. Beutler exemplifies the task of being the photographer’s art photographer. A retired University of Michigan professor of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, Beutler’s gallery statement says “his artistic vision is fundamentally painterly, as modified by the demands of the photographic process.” Likewise, in a November 2010 Ann Arbor News review of his digital photography, Beutler told me the unifying factor of his photos is the serendipitous nature of their occasion: “In each instance, I found myself in a situation where I felt compelled to take the picture.”

Of the half-dozen Beutler color photographs on display, Peggy’s Cove shows him in his best light. Being just as the title tells us -- an inlet where two tethered rowboats are shown floating next to a red house -- Beutler lets his fancy spice the image by sharpening the photograph’s palette: The rowboats are not merely yellow -- it’s a heightened yellow whose rust stands in relief of the boat itself. And the house on the water’s edge of the inlet is not merely red, but a rich scarlet verging on imperial red whose striking contrast with the blue sky and water of the cove makes the composition that much more arresting. It’s as though Beutler’s showing us that it’s all well to imaginatively see the world; just as it’s equally well to see it photographically -- but it’s altogether another thing to see photography as imaginative art.

John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.

“Water Is Life” runs through May 10. The Washtenaw County Historical Society's Argus Museum, 525 W. William St., Ann Arbor. Exhibit hours are Monday-Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. For information, call 734-769-0770.