The Chicago Tribune
Friday February 6, 1981


By Alan G. Artner Art critic

ALL PHOTOGRAPHERS have a signature apart from the one they write. It may be a peculiarity of composition, a special camera technique, a personal darkroom procedure, or all of these brought to bear on a particular kind of subject. If the quirk recurs with regularity, it can be the characteristic that makes the photographer known.

In the case of Roger Vail, who is showing at Douglas Kenyon, Inc. (155 E. Ohio St.), the telling characteristic is darkness - the darkness of shadows and ink-black nights. Vail's daytime pictures continually show him shooting into shadows that envelop or discreetly frame his figures. This gives the images a peculiar nocturnal ambience even when they otherwise capture the light (and lighter emotions) of midday.

Such pictures are exquisitely balanced and not as romantic as a description might sound. The photographs taken at night are just the opposite, extremely romantic but not in the ways one would expect. Classic night pictures by Alfred Stieglitz, Brassai, Ilse Bing, and others emphasize atmosphere and mystery. They are filled with rain-glazed streets, twinkling lights, and buildings with an impressive glow.

The romance in a Vail photograph usually hinges on sky and water, that is, on the movements and reflections in each. Made over a period of several hours, the exposures translate the coursing of airplanes, moon, and stars into aerial calligraphy, while intensifying reflections until they equal the light source.

It may be remembered that Richard Misrach recently showed some long exposures taken in the desert in which galactic phenomena also appear. But Misrach's pictures are primeval; everything seems to rise from the past Vail is a precisionist, sharply depicting modern machinery. Boats, bridges, oil refinery tanks, an observatory, even amusement park rides burn with a hard flame in Vail's large-format prints. The night pictures make up more than half of the 37 on view, yet one does not tire of them. It is a sure sign the photographer will be welcome the next time around. (Through February.)


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