Reviews of Fieldwork


THE NEW YORKER, Vince Aletti, December 3, 2007

This photographer’s New York début is smartly understated—modest but memorable. Dow’s images of woods and fields nod to the landscape tradition reaching from Eugène Atget to Robert Adams, and their quiet beauty is underlined by the richness of her platinum-palladium prints. Dealing with the overfamiliar subject of man’s rude intrusion into the natural world, she’s not always subtle—stacked logs and felled limbs abound—but she knows when to step back and allow an image to breathe. Her pictures of a lone tree in a row of stumps and a pile of smoking stubble under a sad gray sky aren’t just taken; they’re felt. Through Dec. 8. (Bekman, 6 Spring St. 212-219-0166.)

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MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE, Mary Abbe, Four Fresh Photo Shows, 5.18.07

         “ … In 19 monochrome photos of modest landscapes, Minneapolis photographer Beth Dow meditates on often-overlooked surroundings – small heaps of worksite gravel that sprawl like a ridge of low hills, nets of dead vines engulfing scrubby river-bottom trees, a circle of immense stones punctuating a bucolic British landscape, an ancient willow with a broken limb, bare tree limbs scraping the sky. All of her photos are taken in what she calls “the precarious seasons of late fall and early spring, when everything hangs between life, death, and life again.”

         Printed on paper coated with a specially mixed platinum-palladium solution, the images are unusually luminous and detailed, yet still sketchy. Resembling delicate etchings, they seem truly drawn with light, which is the original meaning of the word ‘photo-graphy.’ By finding poetry in such humble, neglected, and utilitarian vistas, Dow affirms the value and vitality of the ordinary.”

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Joan Rothfuss (curator, Walker Art Center), Photocentric Catalog, Minnesota Center for Photography, 2005

         “… Beth Dow’s square platinum prints, despite their serene, monochrome softness, are similarly ominous. In one, a tangle of desiccated vines covers a couple of leafless shrubs like a shroud; in another, a pyre of field stubble burns slowly while its smoke fills the wide sky. In all of these images people are absent, though their marks are everywhere; this lends them an air of timelessness and gravitas, and tends to emphasize the gap between humans and the natural world.”

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Complicated Grey Eyes, by Sean, Walker Art Center and McKnight Foundation, 5.21.07

         “What is it we wish from fieldwork or a field of view? Beth Dow stops short of the romantic notion of artist above nature and brings an illuminated gardener’s punctum to its pruning. Despite straightforward appearances, her work teems with history and philosophy in a comforting, meditative way, like gardens of the sublime domesticated and available for personal consultation.

         Nineteen or so 16” square plots of palladium printing, with its large tonal range, show patterns not fully visible to our colored, roving eyes. Dow guides us through space, not a black and white one, but into grey hovering mists that position our field of view within them. Perhaps here can be our simple wish: to wonder at the presence of infinity and singularity.

         Led Zeppelin IV was an early influence, “something ominous”, she said. And it seems this is the existential drama at the roots of her work. In its cover art a country man hunched over by a large bundle of sticks props himself up with one: a gesture of self-assertion. Like many of the gestures recorded in her landscapes, it shows interdependency between humanity and nature.

         Despite the lack of human figures, signs of devastation and clearing are generally the recognizable point of the compositions. They interrupt the field and give us a way to consider our presence’s tenuous hold and its place in the larger presence of nature. Where we go for sustenance and shelter is also where we go to be buried or scattered. What we glimpse in it is something both within and beyond our control, sometimes making it usable, sometimes ominously punctuating the land.

         Informed in parts by nineteenth-century photographer P. H. Emerson and seventeenth-century gardener William Lawson, Dow composes and shoots quickly with a hand-held medium-format camera and then crops square: an instant meditation on both the medium and its metaphysics. This forced geometry creates visual tension involving the entire frame that doesn’t allow for wandering off. The viewer’s gaze must find its way through densely detailed patterns. A glimpse at the road beneath our feet reveals specks of dirt like the cosmos; a web-fine collection of vines reveals a keyhole shape. Sometimes these only seem to go so far, but that is their domestic allure: a center weighted burning stump represents a glimpse both into the beyond and into a field clearing schedule: sublimity’s horror balanced in the squared order.