Roger Vail continues to be one of the most exciting photographers working today.
Professor emeritus of photography at California State University, Sacramento, his work has appeared on the cover of Life magazine and in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States. His latest work, on view at Jay Jay, scores another hit.
His previous series of images Ferris wheels lighted up at night, shot with long exposures so the lights painted giant, brightly colored circles on the sky were dramatic, beautiful, and searching.
His new series, titled "Inconspicuous Places," is quieter in some ways, but no less compelling visually.
Though these complex images of reflections in glass windows look as if they were manipulated in the darkroom, they are in fact "straight" photographs, taken during his wanderings through urban areas in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Albuquerque, N.M., among other places.
Comparing himself to a character in Walter Benjamin's "Das Passagen-Werk," a celebration of the flâneur, a 19th century gentleman of leisure who strolled the streets of Paris seeing the sights, Vail writes eloquently of his quest in a statement accompanying the show.
" 'The city beckons," said (the French poet) Baudelaire, 'to the flâneur as phantasmagoria now a landscape, now a room.' "
Vail photographs trans-parent windows, making the inside and outside one. His shots of shop windows covered with dirt, graffiti, or scratches are puzzles in which one tries to get one's bearings. Is a shop window in which a bus seems to have crashed into a restaurant a figment of the imagination or a multilayered image of the surface of the glass, reflections of a sign, and lights in the distance?
Vail has titled each of his photographs with the time, date and place where he found the image. For example, "11:32 p.m. 6-21-09 Las Vegas" gives us a dirty window through which a pair of orange neon rectangles float over a storefront, the whole bathed in rich Rembrantesque tones of brown and gold.
"4:56 p.m. 1-7-09 Santa Cruz" presents a scene of what might be a Social Security office or a bus station depot seen though a window in which someone has drawn an abstract pattern that drips and runs down the glass.
"5:09 p.m. 11-15-08 Watsonville" is a totally abstract composition in which someone has smeared a frosty window with orange and blue paint that suggests both sun and sky while remaining basically non- objective.
Many of these new images are rich in color, but some stay more within a black-and-white or gray scale. Scenes of windows in Palo Alto and Sacramento have a limited color range, as does a surreal image of a window in Alameda, splashed with white that is scraped away in the center to reveal a kind of viscera made of fur or fiber.
Vail records faithfully the time and date of each image because the light shifts from moment to moment, making each of these shots a fleeting instant in time.
He quotes Benjamin at length in his statement: "Our waking existence is a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise. All day long suspecting nothing we pass them by but no sooner has sleep come than we are eagerly groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors."
Once again, Vail has taken us to poetic places in which the imagination can run free in visually eloquent images that intrigue us with their layers of complexity.
ROGER VAIL: INCONSPICUOUS PLACES
Where: Jay Jay, 5520 Elvas Ave.
When: Through Oct. 27
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, or by appointment
More information: (916) 453-2999, www.jayjayart.com