A ‘Field Guide’ to Magical Thinking

Jochen Lempert, the German photographer whose first major U.S. museum show, Field Guide, is now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, combines the metaphysical with the biological so well that the effect is often magical.

click to enlarge “Untitled (Antelope)” by Jochen Lempert
“Untitled (Antelope)” by Jochen Lempert

Jochen Lempert, the German photographer whose first major U.S. museum show, Field Guide, is now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, combines the metaphysical with the biological so well that the effect is often magical.

Or, I should say, the effect is downright scientific. He’d appreciate that latter term — he’s a trained biologist who turned to art photography in the 1990s. Yet much of his work achieves magic by making something ephemeral concrete and vice versa.

This is a show to spend some time with, because the way individual images affect the viewer often depends on the size and placement of the black-and-white prints. And the impact upon our cognitive process of seeing, in close proximity to each other, close-ups of sand (“Etruscan Sand,” a 2009 photogram), “Rain” (a 2003 photograph) and “Crushed Shells” (a 2013 photogram) teaches us as much about ourselves as photography.

Looking from one to another of those aforementioned images, with their similarities and differences, you lose your orientation and perspective. And that’s a good thing — it’s liberating.

Lempert’s photos are often astute, straightforward observations of nature, especially of animals. But he then conceptualizes what he sees, rendering it unusual.

It helps immensely that Lempert works only in black and white and uses 35-millimeter film, which he develops by traditional (non-digital) means. In Field Guide, his work is displayed on rough paper and is unframed. It feels new and different on the pristine walls of the three first-floor galleries, themselves new, that are displaying it.

Curator Brian Sholis accentuates that impact with minimal wall text — you have to carry around a laminated “field guide” to keep track of the photos.

Lempert can be an exacting, observational realist — a scientist — when he wants. The show’s signature piece, on the cover of the handout pamphlet, is “Untitled (Antelope)” from 2008, in which that animal stares into the camera with a fierce curiosity. Although the print has graininess and its ground area

is soft-focus and even blurry, the animal peers with such attention that it appears
to be stepping forth from the wall. 

The clarity of it is as sharply focused as it would be if we were looking through high-power binoculars. The antelope’s eyes are rock-like patches of intense black; its palm-frond-size ears lift up as if hearing the viewer’s heartbeat. It’s watching us.

With his scientific rooting, Lempert knows how to show concepts that might seem too visually abstract. “Wind,” for instance — a new work that is a large triptych — depends on its title. On first glance, there’s nothing dramatic about it. But once you learn the subject, the foreshadowing is as chilling as a winter wind. The darkness indicates a storm is about to arrive. The leaves on tree branches are bending, pointing and shaking.

It isn’t that bold of a concept to “show” wind by photographing something moving in it. But Lempert’s choices are so subtle and quiet and presented in so large a format that he’s really at risk of failing to communicate. But he succeeds, and the result is a feeling of enveloping ominousness.

Not everything here works — Lempert occasionally overestimates his ability to transform the mundane by focusing on it. One example is his 2009 “Works by Charles P. Alexander from 1915 to 1974” — photographs of seven covers from entomologist Alexander’s academic papers on the crane fly.

I can see how Lempert would admire Alexander’s dedication so much that he would want to commemorate it in the
best way he knows how, but it just doesn’t translate well to visual art.

One piece really stands out with glowing distinction: For 2010’s “Glowworm (movements on 35-mm film),” Lempert left four frames of unexposed film on a bathroom counter and let the insect’s natural bioluminescence expose them as it moved across them. Enlarged and its four frames presented horizontally on their own wall, the white light against the black background is like a dark universe opening up to let in the explosive dawn of something new. It’s unforgettable.

(Jochen Lempert’s Field Guide is on display at the CAM until March 6.)

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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