Luc Demers, “Ambient 31 1,” 2018, archival pigment print, 16 x 16 inches Images courtesy of the artists

In the popular mind, process can get a bad rap. It implies a kind of detached automaticity or an imposed order that strives to regulate or “normalize” what is inherently variable. But for many artists, process is a practice of revelation and deeper understanding. If you don’t believe me, pop into the recently opened storefront outpost of the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts for “Constructed & Found” (through Aug. 23).

Each of the photographers represented on the MMPA’s walls – Brendan Bullock, Luc Demers, Damir Porobic, John Woodruff and Barbara Goodbody – approaches his or her work through a unique process. It can be consciously contrived (Woodruff) or deliberately deconstructed (Porobic). Other times it is about abstracting light and landscape through motion (Goodbody). Still other times it’s simply about radically narrowing one’s focus to a minute detail of that which is encountered (Bullock). And in one instance, it is a devised system for expressing the infinite changeability and mystery of natural phenomena (Demers).

In the case of Demers – whose work, to me, is the most impactful in the exhibition – the images represent the confluence of process, ephemerality and poetry (not necessarily in that order). It was the work I was immediately drawn to, despite the bold, almost Baroque ebullience of Woodruff’s fabricated images of flowers, which are certainly more overtly arresting.

Demers’s allusion to Joseph Albers is, at least superficially, obvious: juxtapositions of colors in a square-within-a-square format. Yet these are so much more than just formulaic combinations and re-combinations of hues that investigate the effects of color on our perception. Albers incisively mined the subtlety of relationships among gradations of shades, as well as the deeper impact (emotional, psychological, physical) those gradations had on the human psyche. But Albers used paint to achieve these ends, while Demurs, more poignantly and lyrically, harnesses light and time.

For his “Ambient” series, Demers shoots outdoors. He cuts square windows in panels of white cardboard and lines them up, one behind the other, with space in between, placing them on an axis with the open sky. His camera is set up at one end, framing this succession of windows. Light hits each of these panels in different ways, temporarily coloring them. The light reaching the back of one panel will reflect that color onto the front of the next. This means that light within any two panels is always a slightly different quality and tone from the space between the next two panels.

The serene beauty of these works is not that they represent a record of a specific time of day. If that were so, they would not be much different, conceptually speaking, than On Kawara’s “Date” paintings, which he began in 1966 and continued doing until his death in 2014. That was just about chronicling time (as well as diverting attention from the art as object).

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Demers’ poetry lies in the sense of evanescence his works emanate. On Kawara’s paintings fixed days in an identical, repetitive format, so that each loses its individuality and specificity in time. Demers’s works – with their soft lines and tonal gradations – capture the light and moods of an instant before it invariably shifts again in the next millisecond. We are literally looking at a moment that has passed, but can sense its warmth or chill, it’s softness or its brightness.

And we can do this while simultaneously intuiting the persistent continuum of time. Demers is also deliberately seeking specific shades and qualities of light, activating his shutter release only at the precise moment when he perceives the particular pink or lavender or yellow for which he has waited. They are worth the whole show.

Damir Porobic, Untitled (Adirondack from memory), 2014, archival pigment composite print, 32 x 44 inches

Porobic’s work deals with how our minds construct and record an image, as well as how the brain reconstructs it as memory. His process is also an examination of his own identity as a Bosnian American. He shoots common items and phenomena that he sees outside his studio: the sky, the surface of the water, a truck, an Adirondack chair. Then he takes this digitized image and combines it with his master printmaking skills.

The artist can isolate certain sections, colors and/or pixels within the digital record and then print just those out. He can then isolate another area and/or color and feed the previously produced partial image into the printer so that the second programmed section prints on top of the original photo. Porobic may do this some 40 times until the image is complete. But it is complete in a whole new way, since in the printing process lines, colors and sections don’t neatly conform to their original margins. It’s like silkscreened colors not meeting exactly along the initially determined areas of color of the original artwork from which it is being reproduced.

The resulting photographs are fuzzy and indistinct, much – as it happens – like our identities and memories. Both, like Porobic’s images, are layered with initial impressions filtered through imprecise recollection, intervening experience and retrospective understanding. The basic image remains, but its supposedly incontrovertible reality at the time of its occurrence is shaky at best and likely no longer relevant in the same way.

On another level, these works question a generally unchallenged assumption of traditional photography as a medium that captures the reality of a moment, freezing it in time for perpetuity. But what, in truth, can we really hold onto forever?

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John Woodruff, “Arrangement #23,” 2022, inkjet print, 40 x 30 inches

Woodruff, on the other hand, throws reality to the wind. His process in this latest series is to take hundreds of photographs of flowers, print them onto paper and cut the blossoms out by hand, then lay them in collaged groupings on several sheets of glass separated a few inches from each other. He also trains light in between the layers to illuminate the flowers in different ways. Finally, his camera is positioned directly above the layered composition so that the resulting single image is actually one of looking down through the layers.

It becomes impossible, then, to view the flat image and determine which blossoms are at what depth, or whether floral images are actually abutting others on the same layer or through multiple layers. These images are a pure artifice, but also mind-bending in a way that scrambles our perceptive capacities. Our brain and eyes cannot exactly discern what it is we’re looking at, what is forefront and what is background.

Woodruff’s previous series, where he applied the same process to photos of stars in the night sky, moonlight or sunlight, remain for me more interesting, mainly because they had the added perceptual confusion of seeming to actually emanate points of light, as if illuminated by little LED bulbs behind the print. It is not that these are not interesting; they are. And they have a chaotic lushness that captures flowers at their ripest moment – bright, fully opened and in your face – which inevitably also implies decay and death, pointing to the impermanence of things. We can see them as both fecund and funereal.

Brendan Bullock, “Boatbuilder’s Geometry, Camden, ME,” 2022, silver gratin print, 9.75 x 9.75 inches

Like that of all the aforementioned artists – indeed like the photographic medium itself – Bullock’s work is about what has passed. For many years, as he’s gone on assignment with his camera to shoot specific events or stories, he has carved out space to literally zero in on often-overlooked details. I say literally because what appears like abstract compositions are something real but minutely observed.

As he says about a job he was shooting (an abandoned boathouse in Camden), “It was as if at noon on Tuesday in 1990, everyone had gone out for lunch and never come back.” That experience is expressed here with a photo that is a hyper closeup detail of the inside of a drawer in the boathouse office, where mice had chewed and scattered the bristles of a brush someone had put into it.

On first look, the work, “Draftsman’s Brush Bristles #2,” looks like a black-and-white line drawing by Miró, or perhaps that same draftsman’s pencil doodlings on gray paper. Our proximity to the dusty, bristle-strewn drawer becomes completely abstract – again, much like memory – and captures an expired moment. The same happens with scratched images on a wall in Tanzania, patterns on the tarpaper of a roof on a Cleveland building, and so on.

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Barbara Goodbody, “Sunrise 1,” 2009, inkjet print, 36.5 x 49.5 inches

Last, but not least, are two large-format works by Barbara Goodbody, a beloved Portland-based photographer who has been experimenting with the photographic medium since 1986, when she attended the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport. (Now called the Maine Media Workshops + College, there is currently an exhibition curated by Bruce Brown at Cove Street Arts, through July 30, that presents the work of various alumni.)

For these two images, Goodbody used a common plastic camera as she photographed sunrises in the Western deserts while she herself was in motion. You can’t get much more transitory than that. “Sunrise I,” from 2009, is a stunner, appearing almost like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of sunlight shining through a break between two mesas. The sunlight appears as a blinding, almost nuclear, explosion at the top middle of the image, with a single hot beam of light splitting the two land masses.

There’s tremendous power to this image, which abstracts a natural phenomenon and, in the process, transmits the fieriness of it more effectively than if she’d stood stationary and clicked the camera. We would not have perceived the fact that heat and light travel and scald. We also understand that, like a bolt of lighting, we are viewing something that happened – no pun intended – in a flash.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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