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Beautiful mistakes

Leah Sobsey revisits early photo techniques


"Orchid No. 6," (2007) by Leah Sobsey. 11 in. x 14 in., photogram on manipulated printing out paper. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LEAH SOBSEY

Sometimes damaged goods can give rise to artistic inspiration. For photographer Leah Sobsey it was a batch of tainted photographic paper. The specter of 19th-century botanist Anna Atkins whispered in her ear, and Sobsey set out to explore the art of the photogram.

Pioneered by Atkins, the photogram is defined by as "a shadowlike photograph made by placing objects between light-sensitive paper and a light source." The photogram was originally developed for scientific documentation and set the stage for photography to overshadow drawing as the preferred method of scientific illustration. For Sobsey it was a chance to work physically and directly with a photographic surface, to go out into nature and return with raw materials for her work. And it was an opportunity to explore the Beautiful Mistake.

In her show at Points of View (POV) Gallery in Raleigh, Sobsey shows 12 one-of-a-kind photograms. These works incorporate a variety of plant life seen as brilliant silhouettes against the darkened backdrop of photographic paper exposed in sunlight. In her artist statement, Sobsey speaks of falling " love with the metallic surface of the damaged photographic emulsion." The smaller scale works in the show were made from such ruined surfaces which Sobsey further manipulated with liquid and heat. "Photogram No. 11" presents three centrally placed flower shapes against a ground treated with a wash that suggests the phantom outlines of a curved torso. "Photogram No. 9" shows a small bare branch against a layered depth of brown tones. The damaged photographic emulsions result in surfaces with a range of subtle metallic tones. The limited palette of these works encourages a heightened awareness of subtle changes in color, shifting from sepia to a deeper brown to eggplant to a dull sheen of almost-lavender. If you take time with these quiet works you'll begin to notice splotches, splatters, scratches, and perhaps even fingerprints. There's a sense of a double history at play here, the history of an antiquated medium and the history embedded in surfaces via Sobsey's manipulations.

In some compositions Sobsey has chosen to place leaves or flowers in discernable patterns. These are less successful; they scan more as textile or design. The pieces that carry more formal weight feature the most spare elements. The composition of "Photogram No. 1" consists of a few reed stalks placed vertically which open slightly outward. The skeletal structure of the reeds against the deep sepia forms a transcendent composition; the luminous stalks suggest flame more than solidity. The piece sustains an energized trajectory that moves beyond its own edges. The simpler, starker compositions transmute their ostensible subject matter. They become more than impressions from nature and begin to express on multiple levels, moving beyond craft or documentation.

Also on view at POV Gallery are four works from a series Sobsey calls The In-Between. These are color digital prints which underscore photography as mediating form, capturing environments as seen through windows, screens or other transparent vantage points. "Vermont 2006 No. 2" is a blurred landscape viewed through a rain-dappled metal screen. The wire of the screen is in crisp focus; each drop of water rings with a clarity, and you can almost see reflections within each one. Step several feet away from the piece, and the landscape asserts itself in a new way. This series addresses issues of perception itself; you become aware of how ocular apparatus continually shifts and compensates in the act of seeing, that the eye itself is a lens and that, in essence, all perception is in fact mediated.

Leah Sobsey's Photograms will be exhibited through May 28 at Points of View Photography Gallery, 20 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh. For more info, visit

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