The Sacramento Bee
Sunday May 19, 1996

Prints conjure the magic of night and light

Roger Vail crafts
rich images of
subtle beauty


by Victoria Dalkey
Bee Art Correspondent
  Sacramento's Tower Bridge shines into the night sky - and the dark river - in "12-22-95 #2."  

Roger Vail, who has taught for a quarter-century at Califomia State University, Sacramento, used long exposures to record the movement of light in "Spinning Carnival Ride."

The lights of the Tower Bridge cast brimming reflections on the high water of the Sacramento River in Roger Vail's mysterious, luminous photographs at the J. Maddux Parker Gallery.

For the past year, Vail has walked along both sides of the river, searching for perfect moments that capture the romance of the glowing bridge lighting up the water at night.

The resulting prints portray the Tower Bridge by implication, the geometry of its lights reaching deep down into the water, setting up abstract compositions of light and shade that suggest the soaring structure above.

Only once does the bridge itself appear - in a print titled "12-22-95 #2." Here we see the whole structure - bejeweled with light that is reflected in the river - glimpsed through the feathery branches of a tree; it makes one think of a painting by Corot.

Using an 8-by10 view camera, Vail makes contact prints using the platinum palladium method, which gives a much wider range of tonal values than the more common gelatin silver print method.

The platinum palladium approach, which dates to the 19th century, results in images of great subtlety and textural richness, with actual color in the form of warm and cool black tones infusing the prints. Thus he captures not only the gradations of the light reflections but incredibly detailed images of the soft tree branches that line the river.

Vail, who has taught for 25 years at California State University, Sacramento, is noted for his nocturnal images of the Sacramento River, Southern California piers and spinning carnival rides.

These new images are more intimate in scale than his earlier work, but they nevertheless pack a powerful punch. They are haunting vistas of natural beauty.

In addition to the Tower Bridge series, Vail's show has a number of older images. He gives us a soft, painterly image of a strange rock formation in the ocean at Santa Cruz, photographed in a three hour exposure that caught moonlight reflected in the water.

In "Hollywood," he shows us a peculiar tree branch that resembles the fleshy arm of some strange space creature. "Chicago River" captures the reflections of high-rises in the still water below while "Paris" is a nocturnal scene of the reflection of concentric circles of light in the Seine.

Returning to the theme of spinning carnival rides, Vail uses long exposures to record the movement of light so that one ride resembles a jellyfish and another a bull's eye of light.

They are stunning images.

Vail, who studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s, eschews the trendy postmodern fascination with media and advertising to give us good, old-fashioned, traditional photographs. He is a romantic throwback to another era.

While his early work was somewhat influenced by Walker Evans, his mature photographs are no one's but his own.


Roger Vail: Tower Bridge and Other Photographs
J. Maddux Parker Gallery, 1107 22nd St., through-June 2. 4-7 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 pm. Saturdays-Sundays.Free. 448-6616.


return to Tower Bridge page