January 31, 1991

Roger Vail, San Simeon Pier, 1991, photograph, at Rena Bransten Gallery San Francisco

Roger Vail
Through February 2 at Rena
Bransten Gallery, 77 Geary St.,
San Francisco.

The simplicity and graphic boldness of Roger Vail's seascapes belie the complexity and subtlety of the ideas they explore. Although these photographs have a surface harmony and tranquility, they possess an underlying tension and a sense of epic struggle. The seashore in Vail's imagery is a theater in which dramatic conflict is played out between the opposing forces of land and sea, and it is a point of focus in an exploration of the nature of reality, the inevitability of change and humanity's place in the universal order.

The operative forces in these seascapes are primarily geologic, but the photographer's approach to them is based less in Western science than in Eastern philosophy. On one level, the images are an illusration of the paradoxical wisdom of Lao Tse, who observed that the soft action of water was sufficient, over time, to destroy rock. Central to nearly all the photographs are two basic compositional elements: the bold vertical strokes of wooden pilings and the subtle (and sometimes ill-defined) horizon line, and the interplay of these diametrically opposed visual elements provides the structural key to the paradox within the images. Although the pilings present the illusion of strength and durability, we know that they will not endure the relentless action of the waves; this is the folly of building on a foundation of sand.

Through exacting control of exposure and processing and printing variables, Vail accentuates his contrast range and heightens the gentle irony implicit in these scenes. The remarkable detail and tonal richness achieved by the use of an eight-by-ten-inch negative charges the wooden pilings with sensual, hyper-realistic texture, and the illusion of palpable form, mass, solidity and strength. By contrast, the use of long exposures softens the appearance of the water, transforming it into a substance that is misty, gray, amorphous, ethereal, gaseous. By stretching the tonal and textural differences in the scene, Vai1 increases the tension and adds considerable ironic force.

These images are testimony not only to the power of nature's forces, but to the transient, ephemeral quality of human existence within this universal order. The imprint of humanity is presented metaphorically--as footsteps in the sand or as wisp-like ghostly images. Although the world of these images appears to be contemporary, the conflict between the water and land continues on a geologic time scale--a scale on which the presence of humanity is all but insignificant. To think otherwise would be an act of hubris.

Humanity is not the only impermanent aspect of Vail's imagery. The photographer's sense of the material world is close to that of Eastern philosophers; his deft transformation of water into gas suggests a fluid concept of the three states of matter, and an awareness that our perception of "reality" is an illusion. In these seascapes, nothing is permanent but change and the eternal, relentless cycles of nature.

- Paul Raedeke


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