Lynn Geesaman: Images
June 26–September 9, 2018
North Dakota Museum of Art
261 Centennial Drive Stop 7305
Grand Forks, North Dakota 58202
Hours: Saturday–Monday 1–5pm
T +1 701 777 4195
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Lynn Geesaman spent two decades creating some of the most timeless images ever made of the natural world as it brushes against and mingles with human creations. The North Dakota Museum of Art has mounted this self-taught photographer’s first retrospective.
Formal gardens of the Western tradition became her ostensible subject matter, but she ultimately zeroed in on the margin between artifice and nature. For example, running through her photographs is the intertwined presence of both architectural forms and vegetal sculpture. A hand-crafted folly or a remnant of archaic sculpture nestles against a topiary wall. Humans are missing, or looking away. In her words, “Much of our world is highly organized and rational. The wilderness experience is now missing, and we are captives of the everydayness of life.” She, like her imaginary mentor, Franz Kafta, creates fables of alienation.
Not interested in documenting reality, she mastered a diffusion technique to suppress detail in her black-and-white photographs. Her goal was to make photographs that stepped further and further away from the literal resulting in rich fields of black that call to mind the opulent darkness of drypoint, a method invented for tonal printmaking. Ultimately, one is struck by how much the black and white photos look like old master prints and how much the color photographs look like paintings.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1938, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1960 with a degree in mathematics and physics. Her first job was as an experimental physicist at the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. While in college, she became interested in photography. First, however, she married and moved with her husband Donald Geesaman and their daughters to Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul). It was here that the nature of her laboratory switched from physics to the photo darkroom.
She first taught herself to work with black-and-white film. Between 1980 and 1987, she completed five series: Twins, Quarries, Mendota Bridge, Dioramas, and Wax Figures. She was awarded residential fellowships by the MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire, in 1983, 1984, and 1985. Her on-going studies in math and physics schooled her to instinctively organize pictorial space through geometric principles, especially the Cartesian coordinate system. By the end of this time, Geesaman had mastered the use of her camera and was confident in the darkroom.
In her black-and-white photographs, Geesaman strove for three-dimensionality through chiaroscuro, pictorial representation that focused on light and shade. It was Geesaman’s response to Pennsylvania’s Bernheim Arboretum in 1992 that led her into color. She found that particular landscape unsuitable to her black-and-white aesthetic. Challenged, she took up color film and taught herself chromogenic printing—pushing the boundaries of this process. As her color work progressed, it became more and more abstract; her colors more surreal, more imagined, and closer to painting than traditional color photography.
Her black and white garden explorations began with topiary, as did Europe’s Renaissance gardens. For example, with a dearth of plant choices on the British Isles, the English sought beauty in the geometric formations of turf and topiary rather than in movement and color, which were the embodiment of American gardens. Early in the eighteenth century, tastes shifted and the English parkland, or landscape gardens such as Versailles, emerged to replace the formal French Baroque gardens of the previous century. Geesaman inadvertently exposed this history one photograph at a time.
In 2007 she took her last black-and-white photographs, and in 2009 her last color.
One of Geesaman’s first museum exhibitions occurred at the North Dakota Museum of art in October 1989, two months after the Museum opened in its current home, a remodeled 1907 gymnasium. Turf and Topiary Gardens included her black-and-white photographs, primarily shot in Europe. After returning home to Minneapolis from the opening she wrote, “I wasn’t quite prepared for the sudden sight of my photographs as I climbed the stairs at your handsome museum. Really, they have never been presented in such numbers, with beautiful pale green [walls] to set them off, and in such wonderful light. What a delight!”
As the years went by Lynn Geesaman’s reputation became wide spread. She showed in the important museums at home and abroad, and her work was collected by most. Still, she maintained that her most beautiful show was in the beginning in North Dakota. Museum Director Laurel Reuter says, “It seems fitting that the North Dakota Museum of Art mount her first major retrospective with a landmark accompanying book.” This is also her first book to include both her black-and-white and her color photographs. Designed by Eleanor Caponigro, it was printed in Verona, Italy by Trifolio, known for inventing a new way of printing color, which is beautifully demonstrated in Lynn Geesaman: Images.
Exhibition curated by Laurel Reuter, Director
North Dakota Museum of Art
Book available through Amazon and the North Dakota Museum of Art
Lynn Geesaman: Images
11.25 x 12.75 inches, 124 pages / 106 images.
Published by the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Designed by Eleanor Caponigro. Typeset in Requiem.
Printed and bound by Trifolio, Verona, Italy.
Hardcover: 80 USD, Softcover: 55 USD plus shipping.