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Taming The Beast

Photographer turns popular ad tool back into an art form

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Jill Enfield's hand-tinted photographs are the cream of the crop in a world saturated with the tinted image. Calendars pose puppies with paper white smiles and Paul Newman eyes, posters boast blue mountains rising across a liquid vermilion sky, and magazines color blushing cheeks in colors brazen enough to make Andy Warhol's dead heart glow. Newsstands and our urban landscape are pocked with hand or computer modified photographs, diluting a clever idea with overexposure, confirming one's suspicion that advertising can exhaust a novel idea in a week.

We need an artist to tame this beast. We have one. Jill Enfield's show at the Light Factory, The Transformed Image, robs this particular beast of his bluster.

Enfield twists an effective advertising tool back into an art form. She takes this peculiar marriage of camera and hand into the same areas as the multitude hand tinters, but she goes further, more deftly, and manages to take us with her when she goes. She seduces with a convincing whisper instead of a club to the head. She's Vermeer to everyone else's Peter Max.

Enfield's images are interior and exterior tableaus. Her images are all recognizable -- streets, sunrooms, courtyards, stairways -- silent and contained moments captured in both manmade and natural environments. Even her outdoor rooms and contracted vistas are intimate enough to appear interior.

In a recent interview, Enfield named Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper as influences in her work. She shares with those artists a talent for expressing the individual presence of a place, conferring a spiritual identity to a place uninhabited by humans. When you enter her photographs, you're alone, but still beholden to recognize another haunts the place with you. A mite hokey, a little spooky, nonetheless true.

Sixteen steps cascade down from a landing illuminated by a light-filled window. The grand and luminous entryway is empty and silent. A wrought iron railing snakes down the 16 steps, ending on gently curved treads leading down to darkness on the lower right. The arched opening at the foot of the stair is black and forbidding. The opposite wall adjacent to the slow step rise is painted blue, a blue all grown up, no longer cute and cuddly, but now lush and chalky, like velour that might come off on your fingers.

All the photographs are untitled and unframed. Pins hold glass covering matted windows over the pictures. The nameless, frameless format invites the viewer to establish his own location, his own references; it challenges us to orient ourselves in an unknown but inviting place.

Enfield explores the romantic without stumbling across the standard beat-to-death cliches and without falling into the sticky pit of false sentiment. Her interiors convey the feeling of quietly stalking an unexplored sunroom or porch or bedroom, undetected, but aware of the secretive nature of the search. Depending on the intimacy of the particular interior and the viewer's own sense of entitlement, you either feel like you're shuffling though your neighbor's drawers or sitting alone on a friend's side porch.

A front porch photograph is Enfield's most obvious descent into the "romance" of color tinting. If ever she markets these images in large poster format, this one will sell best, with a poem by Robert Frost pasted in lyrical font across the front. We luxuriate in the intimacy of the wicker rocking chair, the light-filled lattice screen, the Victorian rail and late afternoon luminous light and shadow spilling across the wide plank porch floor. This is a place you rock on the gliding bench and tell family lies and absurd personal theories without fear of ridicule. It's enclosed and intimate and shuns judgment. It's a rare thing -- solace.

Enfield's use of color has the paradoxical effect of making these places more familiar. Front yards behind picket fences, abandoned pueblos reclaimed by untended gardens, tile and stucco courtyards, arched and stacked brick openings behind tropical fronds -- each building or courtyard is exotic and remote. These are places we don't remember seeing.

Before seeing the images, I would assume the use of colors -- often unseen in nature, slightly deviant colors -- would make the places more unearthly, remote and unapproachable. To the contrary, Enfield's introduction of color into the photographs makes the places more approachable, more familiar. Perhaps it's the sense of entering an altered environment comforted by knowing the strangeness is shared -- none of us have been here before.

A stucco wall topped with a parapet roof with corbeled edge is photographed from below. A green/gray sky threatens storms above the building's edge, latticed window framed blue and yellow, aqua blue water stains bleed from roof edge and window sills. Black fronds from a palm tree shadow a pale yellow balcony. The tableau conjures an exotic locale, but we've already been here. The color brings the exotic home. It's a phantom memory, an architectural deja vu.

Jill Enfield wrote the book on hand tinting. Literally. It's titled Photo Imaging -- A Complete Guide to Alternative Processes, and it reputedly explores every technique advanced technology has graced on the photographer's world. I have little use for technical explanations. The depth and subtlety and care incorporated into these photographs are enough to convey the emotional lure required of seduction.

There's a photograph of a corner of a bathroom. Everything is cropped -- edges, sink, mirror, window and wall. The large casement window is painted shut and fogged over. The edge of the old pedestal sink dissolves into the background wall tile like a distant candle flame haloed in a shroud of darkness. Indistinct shapes float outside the fogged window. The bathroom is both secure and remote, comforting and unfamiliar. Like many of Enfield's photographs, this bathroom is a solid memory of a place we've never visited. I know I'm here. Haven't a clue how I got here.

Jill Enfield's photo exhibit The Transformed Image will show through January 17 at the Light Factory at Spirit Square. Tim Buchman's architectural photographs are also on exhibit at Spirit Square, in the Knight Gallery, through January 17. Call 704-333-9755 for details.

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