Saturday, March 24, 2018

Captive Light

The Photography of Ella E. McBride at Tacoma Art Museum
By Alec Clayton
Published in the Weekly Volcano
untitled gelatin silver print by Ella McBride, private collection, photo by Lou Cuevas, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
For a short period of time during her long life, Seattle photographer Ella E. McBride was revered internationally, but after her death in 1965, at the age of 102, much of her work was lost, and today she is little known. Perhaps this exhibition will help restore her rightful stature in the art world. A late bloomer, she did not start taking photographs until she was 58 years old and actively worked as a photographer for only about 10 years. Only about 150 or her photographs survive; 57 of them are included in this exhibition, all done between 1921 and 1927.
McBride was associated with the pictorialist movement of photographers, who in many ways emulated the art of painting. Her specialty was flowers, but she also did figure studies, portraits, and both urban and nature scenes. No matter what she pointed her camera at, she was aware of light, composition and narrative potential. She did extreme closeups, which were just beginning to become common. She used selective focus and much soft focus, and dramatic lighting. Much of her soft-focus photography brings to mind atmospheric paintings such as James McNeil Whistler’s “Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea.” Her use of dark and light make many of her portraits and figurative works look like Rembrandts.
“In the Spring” from 1922 pictures a bearded old man contemplating a vase of flowers. It calls to mind Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.” You can almost see the brushstrokes, which are literally not there. An untitled photo from the same year pictures the same man contemplating a globe. Variations on a theme of this nature is a painting tradition, not a photographic tradition —evidence of how McBride worked like a painter.
Another fine example of her love for painting can be seen in her untitled photograph of an artist painting a large picture. The artist is seen mostly from the side and back. He sits in shadow. The only light on him is a sharp highlight in his dark hair and bright light on the arm and hand with which he paints his picture — making the act of painting the central focus of the picture. The light on his arm looks like heavy impasto laid on with a brush. The painting itself takes up most of the picture and is so dark that the man and woman in the painting can barely be seen.
“Leaving the Temple” depicts a vase, a statue and part of a hanging plant, all of which become secondary to the shadow cast by the vase, reversing the customarily relative importance of objects in such a still life arrangement and doing a switcheroo on light and dark by “highlighting” the statue with shadow. This is artistic sensitivity of the highest order.
McBride’s flower pictures are mostly shot in soft focus, emphasizing the delicacy of the flowers, or they are closeup images that take on a sculptural feel. Her outdoor scenes are atmospheric, misty and mysterious. I found myself wishing I could sit down, hold the pictures in my hand and meditate on them. And guess what. I can. Because I took home the book Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride, a beautiful book available in the museum gift shop.
McBride was left out of the history books that I and most art majors studied. I’m so thankful for curators Margaret Bullock and David Martin for bringing her works to Tacoma Art Museum.
The photographs of Ella E. McBride, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through July 8, $13-$15, third Thursday free 5-8 p.m., Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

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