February 16, 2012

Sounds of Silence

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It’s a long way from here to eternity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a glimpse of it, as award-winning photographer Thibault Roland demonstrates in his latest exhibition at Mann Gallery, on the second floor of Mann Library. Roland stretches and compresses time through his photographs; he isn’t capturing landscapes, but “timescapes,” as the exhibition’s title suggests.

That’s probably one of the best ways of describing Roland’s photographs. In Roland’s black and white universe of sprawling water bodies and silent buildings, landscapes flow. As Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata describes in his novel Snow Country, “In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other … melted into a sort of symbolic world not of this world.”

In other words, Dali’s melting clocks and dissolving dunes would not look out of place in Roland’s world.  By employing a digital Single Lens Reflex camera and a long exposure technique, Roland renders static objects sharp and moving objects blur.  The effect is ethereal. It’s almost unbelievable that these glimpses of the infinite are literally all around us; Roland’s subjects can be found on Cornell’s campus or its vicinity. (If you’re not sure where to go for spring break, it’s time to take that drive around Cayuga Lake.)

Roland is fascinated by light. This is probably obvious from his devotion to photography. What isn’t apparent is that Roland is a scientist; he fuses photography with physics. A native of Nancy, France, Roland pursued physics in Grenoble before earning his Ph.D in Lyon. As a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics at Cornell’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Roland currently explores how light can be used as a tool to illuminate the fundamentals of life. This aim has a philosophical ring to it, and that is just as well. John Locke’s enduring description of the camera obscura applies here, “External and internal sensations are the windows by which light is let into this dark room.”

The sounds of silence resonate throughout Mann Gallery. Black and white photographs, taken in 2010 and 2011, are methodically arranged about a foot apart on opposing walls. At first glance, some of Roland’s images, like his pair of Sage Chapel pictures, recall the typologies of industrial structures German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher made famous in the late 1960s. Peaceful Sage and Sage Winter depict Sage chapel, shot from a similar angle, respectively bathed in sunlight in summer and buried by snow in winter.

But Roland doesn’t seem to aim at a systematic recording of architecture. In fact, his images are more reminiscent of paintings and performance art than photographs.  His images of Six Mile Creek and Ithaca Falls, such as Abstract Water, resemble Gerhard Richter’s hazy, cinematic paintings.  Like Richter’s early paintings, Roland’s “timescapes” strongly evoke motion and fleetingness. Roland’s camera freezes the moment in time and attests to that bold, glorious instant in which the raging waters races down the rocks. While the surge of adrenaline is encapsulated by these sprays of water, there is quietness despite the violence, just like how the German Expressionist Franz Marc painted his blue horses that were explosively strong, yet intensely serene.

Roland’s sparing use of color makes any deviation from black and white startling, if not puzzling. In Follow the Current, an exquisite depiction of Buttermilk Falls, Roland highlights the drift of a log by giving it a reddish brown hue. Stuck in a Moment, is also accentuated by a touch of color. Chirpy emerald green leaves rest on a brick-red log against a blinding white background that could pass off as either snow or water.

The titles of Roland’s photographs even read like haikus. A particularly stylish shot of Taughannock Falls has been christened Drapes, alluding to how the ribbon of water grandly unfurls.  Elevator to the Sky features a ladder rising skyward between the iconic gridded white walls of Weill Hall: Is this a grandiose reference to scientific progress, or something more subtle? There’s a feeling of being all at sea here — being alone with something you love, grasping the fresh possibility that something great might happen.

That feeling resounds in his Cayuga Lake photographs, which received an Honorable Mention at the International Photo Awards in 2011. Quietness depicts a private pier on which three chairs have been carelessly left askew. The sea and sky are expansive and warrant every adjective that means majestic or thunderous. Strangely, however, it’s the trio of chairs that demand the most attention. Just like most of Roland’s photographs, the scene is devoid of people, but you can’t help wondering who had been sitting on the chairs. You might imagine their conversations, or speculate how it must have felt like, being alone with just the sea and sky. You start to notice every tremble in the water surface, every notch the evening light dims. That might just be how the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian felt like as he composed his ocean and pier paintings of 1917 (black crosses and dashes against a white oval). It’s certainly an appropriate scene for epiphanies.

Original Author: Daveen Koh