Tonee Harbert’s “Curiosities” succeeds both as straightforward black-and-white photography and as subtle, boundary-questioning conceptualism.

Harbert’s works would not have looked out of place any time since Alfred Stieglitz and his early-century colleagues pushed for a painterly presence of photography in America that included soft focus, luscious textures and painting-like compositions.

But it’s up to the viewer to experience Harbert’s work simply as soupy-grained black-and-white photography or as concept-driven art. On one hand, the appeal of the images in their apparent idiom is enough to stop many viewers from looking more closely. But by welcoming the viewer with clear photographic talent, Harbert makes a compelling case for his conceptual content.

Harbert’s 16 images are nicely presented in PhoPa’s small but handsome gallery space (“PhoPa” is a witty play on “photography” and “paper”). They generally take the form of quirky scenes or objects happened on by a camera-toting artist out looking for subjects, implying snapshot spontaneity rather than narrative stills.

“Untitled (Tower),” for example, looks like the rectangular base of a lighthouse (or a sub-spotting tower) moved down to a platform on a stony beach. The point of view is defined by distance and the lack of a path through the almost-black rocks to the dark tower. Moreover, the lowering light solidifies the geometrical volume of the boxy, vertical structure. And the growing graininess of the print towards the corners leaves a centralized image that feels like the memory of a hallucinatory image – like a vacation snapshot of one of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical towers visiting the Maine coast in a dream.

Unlike the pre-programmed, theatrical weirdness of Surrealist paintings by Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, however, the scene evokes mystery that feels genuine.

While Harbert’s images reject understandable narrative, their use of grainy journalistic legibility connects them to a film noir aesthetic of mystery – a psychologically-soaked post-surreal feel in which events unfold awkwardly rather than as a traditional linear narrative.

Even Harbert’s only image of a person engaged in action takes a stance of impenetrable mystery: From high on a hill across the road from a clearing, we see a man walking back toward the woods from a fire large enough to make it clear that he’s burning something (it’s no cozy campfire). The man is clearly not aware of us, and our viewpoint makes it likely we are obscured by the heavy woods surrounding the rest of the scene. The viewer seems to occupy the exact same mental space as the photographer: We are witnesses to a mystery. But instead of a scene from an ongoing movie, we are completely in the dark, like real people stumbling on the secret actions of a stranger in a place they have never been before.

Harbert’s sleight of hand takes the opposite direction of typical art photography: Instead of showing off his craft, Harbert’s subjects are often used to mask his subtle sense of structure. “Untitled (Barn),” for example, focuses on a centralized, richly-dark and iconic barn shape in the very center of the square composition. In someone else’s hands, this is a picturesque rural Maine scene – perfect fodder for a commercial photo or a salable painting. But Harbert’s creepy sensibility imports a slightly sinister back end: A long look leads you to question what you are doing off the main road, which is visible to the right, out in someone else’s field.

Harbert has an eye for happened-upon scenes. A large deciduous tree missing an upper quarter is a common enough suburban sight (limbs are often cleared for power lines) but to see such a tree alone in a field is strange, and it’s hard to recall why. In another image, two cloaked and stooped figures feel uncomfortably ghostly. Even when you see them as bushes prepped for winter, the scene is still uncanny: Why are they stooped so out away from anything else?

To read one of Harbert’s pieces deeply pays off. His “Untitled (Street Lights),” for example, is a strangely lonely scene that seems like a simple enough picture connecting a moon that fits perfectly into a suite of street lights. But eerie questions arise: We see no paths or buildings or things in the night landscape, so why the lights? And there are three light posts: The front has two round fixtures, but the farther two only have one each. They hide the distinction somewhat by acting as a pair. And the moon further camouflages them by pulling up and away from the single sphere fixtures in a direct line as though, together, they made a timelapse series of the moon’s progress through the night sky. Once you see this quiet system’s wit in play, it’s easier to notice the blurred light moving along the horizon. And you have to move in close to see there is a pair of headlights – instead of a single light.

Harbert’s photographs might look like grainy, old-school black-and-white (think Ilford 3600 film shot quickly in low light), but in fact they are shot with 1960s-era “Diana” cameras, which feature a plastic body and a plastic lens (read: cheap), and professional 120 film. This combination of high-grade film with a cheap plastic lens has made this a reasonably popular approach (well, at least among wacky camera buffs) for taking Impressionistic, often grainy images. Where Harbert’s approach intersects with debates over modern photography is in what happens after he makes the images. He scans them and prints them as digital files.

This raises the question of whether a program such as Photoshop can be used to enhance or rework the photos. His images seem to be free of digital makeup or even cropping, but Harbert also shows a series of images made from multiple shots – single-print “diptychs” and “triptychs” – with margins that must be digital. In these cases, the digital intervention makes these images look more like analog photography. This kind of manipulation also creates the impression of darkroom work.

Still, by making digital prints of the originally grainy, analog film, Harbert brings the digital pixel and the black-and-white photographic grain together in a fascinating side-by-side dialogue.

Digital prints of analog film aren’t uncommon, but it’s rare to find a film photographer who has such a gorgeous sense of grain make such fine digital prints while focusing on kitsch culture’s entry into fine photography. Somehow Harbert is ironic with his mastery of the cheap, novelty “Diana” camera but then insistently unironic in his moving past its hip, artsy status far enough to make outstanding photography that can stand on its own. While the pixel is a problem, the grain is a point of connoisseurship, and Harbert goes far enough to offer up this comparison.

The fact that you can see “Curiosities” as straightforward or complexly conceptual makes it a particularly appealing and accessible exhibition. That Harbert is so successful in both modes makes it an unusual and noteworthy show.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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