After a career as a designer of mosaics in France, Isa Marcelli turned her creative talents to photography. It was 2008, so naturally she began using a digital camera.
Yet, for her, something was missing from the process—the hands-on quality of making, a slower time from concept to creation, a wider space for subjective perception. So Marcelli ditched her modern equipment for the seemingly antique and outmoded labors and aesthetics of century-old photographic processes.
The recent results of her journey into personal expression through the history of photography are now on view at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, where a solo exhibition of Marcelli’s work—her first in the United States—continues through September 16.
On view are examples of her collodion wet plate tintypes, gelatin silver prints and cyanotypes, all image-making techniques dating to the 19thcentury. Photographic junkies will revel in the romantic ideal of the artist lugging around a large view camera on a substantial tripod, disappearing under a heavy black drape in order to capture an image on a glass plate. And wax rhapsodic about the darkroom chemistries of coating plates, sensitizing papers and fixing prints.
Viewers need not be familiar nor enamored with the details of these methods to enjoy the reveries on display. Here is what one will find: shadowy and elegant portraits, still lifes and landscapes all rendered in monochromatic tones of blue (cyanotypes), silvery grays (gelatin silver prints) or warm iron-chocolate (tintypes).
Like brush strokes on a canvas, painterly traces of plate preparation, scratches in the emulsion and other happy accidents in the darkroom may become part of the resulting images. American photographer Sally Mann, also a practitioner of legacy techniques and admired by Marcelli, describes these imperfections as delivered by an “angel of uncertainty,” who bestowed upon her images “essential peculiarities, persuasive consequence, intrigue, drama and allegory.”
Portraits of women dominate the more than four dozen photographs in the exhibition, embodying a wide range of attitudes and captured through studied close-ups, formal compositions, and moments that read as fleeting and casual.
Consider the gelatin silver print “Léa,” in which the subject rests her chin on her crossed hands. It’s an arresting image that is both haunting and beautiful, as the soft light illuminates only her freckled face and slender hands; all else recedes into inky darkness. Despite the sitter’s neutral expression, her gaze is intense and does not ease its grip on the viewer.
Marcelli’s portraits often emphasize a kind of timeless elegance, though not always accompanied by ease. Consider the force of sitter’s fixed gaze in “Anamaria,” and her reappearance in the double portrait “Axel et Anamaria.” She is seen in profile, her body turned away and head titled up; he faces the camera and engages the viewer directly.
The discord between the two is expressed not only in their body language but in the opposition of their dark and light clothing. The soft focus, often a signature awash with romance or nostalgia, here fuels the mystery of this disconnected relationship.
Even in the most straightforward of images, Marcelli evokes a psychological tension. “Léonor assise” is a portrait of a seated young woman, posed out of doors. The empty chair next to her and the subject’s wary glance away from the camera appear to suggest a portentous absence.
With such images, Marcelli might be called a latter-day Pictorialist, given her preference for this century-old aesthetic for using photography as a vehicle for fashioning dramatic, imaginative, painting-like compositions. An approach to image-making that bridged the 19thand 20thcenturies, Pictorialism embraced mood and atmosphere, putting diffused focus and warm tonality in service of personal expression over photography’s sharp record-making capabilities.
At other times, Marcelli’s dreamlike vision veers towards the surreal and even the macabre. Consider “Le chant des sirènes,” an oddly haunting montage of two overlaid images of a woman’s face and a conch shell.
Or the even more disturbing “Le couple,” featuring a seated pair with sacks over their heads. Close inspection reveals that they may actually be dummies posed as if bound and helpless. But the uncertainty and disconcerting drama reveal the nightmarish end of romanticism’s spectrum.
The recent tintype series “She brings the rain” seems to encapsulate Marcelli’s interest in capturing an ephemeral and enigmatic beauty. In them, a single female figure dances before the camera. Her identity is obscured by her hair, her thin garments act as a veil, and her movements are deliberately faster than the slow exposure can freeze. The result is not so much a portrait as the artist’s visualization of fixing a shadow and capturing a spirit.
Marcelli also finds poetry in nature, whether depicting it in still life or landscape photographs. Her floral still lifes are simple but elegant arrangements on tabletops that become studies in form, texture and tone.
Two variations on “Les ouefs,” a composition featuring a bowl of eggs and a clear wine bottle with a single blooming stem, is presented as both tintype and cyanotype, allowing the viewer to experience the differing yet complementary properties between the two techniques.
In the former, a shimmering pool of light filtering in from the background illuminates the tabletop, eggs and bottle, while sinking the rest of the composition into an enveloping darkness, save for the brilliant pop of the bloom in the upper right.
In the cyanotype, focus is completely diffused, and emphasis is on the shaft of light falling behind the blossom, which glows as if solarized. Marcelli’s use of Japanese gampi paper for printing her cyanotypes lends them the aqueous quality of blue inks or watercolors.
Marcelli also delights the viewer with a few landscapes no doubt taken in the area around her home near Barbizon, France. The village of Barbizon was an important center in the development of landscape painting (and, later, photography) as an independent subject for art, especially in the 19thcentury.
The Forest of Fontainebleau, with its acres of woods, meadows, gorges and clearings, was inspiration for a new naturalism that must still resonate in its precincts today.
A group of three cyanotypes delineates the silhouetted forms of trees and shrubbery; the effect is distinctly one of intimacy, of mood rather than time or place.
“The lost garden,” a gelatin silver print, underscores a sense of magic and discovery, as it seems the photographer has had the good fortune to find a small sitting area tucked into a clearing in the woods. Marcelli translates this into a painterly vision of solace, reverie and peace in the embrace of nature.
Clearly, Marcelli has chosen an apt method for realizing her creative vision. Her photographs are more than moments—they embody moods and drama, defy temporality and allow the artist to respond to her muse through the entire image-making process. In this instant gratification world of just about everything, Marcelli reminds of the value of savoring the arts through long exposure.
The Garden of the Zodiac Gallery’s Isa Marcelliis on view through September 16. The gallery, located at 1042 Howard Street in the Old Market Passageway, is open Tues-Sat from noon-8pm and on Sun from noon-6pm.