John Wimberley’s photographs at Viewpoint Gallery have all the clarity of focus, depth of field, and masterful composition we associate with artists of the f.64 group, such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.
A self-taught photographer, he uses a 5-inch-by-4-inch view camera to produce images of natural sites with an astonishing tonal range. Images like “Salt Creek” 1998, with its sinuous shore and tilelike beach, run the full gamut from black to white.
In an email, he described the tonal range in his works as “a fingerprint of the photographer’s psyche, particularly in the sense of how open he is to all aspects and nuances of moment-by-moment experience, both light and dark and everything in between.”
It’s not a technical matter, he asserts, but rather “a matter of knowing from long experience how the light and darkness of life itself relate to one another.”
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All of his images are black-and-white gelatin silver prints because he realized early on that the use of black-and-white had the potential to communicate and embody the spiritual aspect of visual phenomena.
Calling his photography “soul work,” he selected for this exhibition, covering 50 years of his work, images that conveyed “a relationship between physical description and spiritual resonance.”
The result is a strong show that moves from romantic images of a woman underwater to texturally rich shots of American Indian rock art and from a cathedral-like gorge to an imposing rock formation he calls a “Chthonic Deity,” an embodiment of the dark forces of the earth.
A sense of magic imbues many of these works, including a rare, shell-like cloud formation at Crater Lake and an enchanted landscape of rocks, magnificent trees, and fog titled “Coyote Hill” 1975. Like a Mannerist painting, the latter features a landscape within a landscape as the scene in the foreground opens up on a misty landscape in the distance.
Fog, too, a thicker version, lingers in the dark crevices of Mount Tamalpais, which front a distant, gray view of San Francisco high-rises. The power of natural forces imbues an image of the ruined yet beautiful trunk of a lightning-struck tree and a dramatic shot of a shipwreck in a stormy sea.
Several photographs of a place called Bitter Ridge document American Indian petroglyphs carved into rocky ranges in hidden places in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert. In “Bitter Ridge #7” 2002, he gives us a ghostlike figure floating over the complex textures of a rough, blackened rock face. In “Bitter Ridge #156,” blinding white light shines through a crevice in dark rocks with figures and symbols etched in the stones.
In “Windows” 1996, he takes an atypical approach to landscape, focusing on a worn brick facade with four windows through which you see distant mountains and a lake. It’s a study in solidity and transparency, the man-made and the natural.
Looking back over the 50 years since he purchased his first camera, he notes that for him photography has lost none of its excitement and pleasures. Describing his approach, he writes, taking a picture “is still like the very first time. I have decades of experience yet am forever a beginner.”
John Wimberley: Gestures of the Spirit, Celebrating 50 Years of Photography
Where: Viewpoint Gallery, 2015 J St., Suite 101
When: Through Feb. 6, 12-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Information: 916-441-2341, www.viewpointgallery.org