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Time magazine puts Lynn Whitney’s work ‘on the radar’

Lynn Whitney’s photographs on Time magazine’s ‘radar’
Lynn Whitney with her 8 x 10 view camera at Farnsworth Park in Waterville.

In Lynn Whitney’s sunlit black and white photographs from the 1980s, the viewer can already see the elements that continue to shape her work today.

Whitney, head of the photography division in the School of Art, is featured in Time magazine’s online Light Box, a site devoted to photography. For its Off the Radar series, Time asked celebrated photographer Mark Steinmetz to choose photographers whose work he admired but who might not be widely known.

Steinmetz, who was Whitney’s darkroom partner when both were students at Yale, wrote of his selections, “I would like to call attention to some remarkable photography made in the late 1970s and early 1980s by nine women in Massachusetts. Though not all of these women were aware of each other’s work at the time, they shared a love for the camera’s ability to describe the material complexity of the world and for the open grey tones of the black and white print. For the most part, they all championed the fluid use of a 4 x 5 view camera (even though this required a tripod) and they mixed flash in with daylight exposures so no deep shadows, no strong chiaroscuro, appeared in their prints. There are no large gestures or dramas here nor easy sentiment.”

“I’m really proud of the company I am keeping in that collection.” Whitney said. “This may come as a shock,” she noted ironically, “but I believe women are really good with the camera, with the photographic medium. My classes (and those of 2D in general in the School of Art) are more than half filled with young women. Yet many of us remain ‘under the radar.’ Either we chose not to seek out galleries or we lack what it takes to convince the galleries to represent us. But, regardless, what is really great is that all of us keep making pictures.

“It is wonderful to see Mary Frey, Sage Sohier Judith Black, Joan Albert, Mary Tortorci, Sheron Rupp, Monika Andersson and Cathy Griffin brought to the attention of a wide audience. Every one of these women inspired me then as they do still. I have had students whose work has made me suggest to them to look at Mary Frey or Sage Sohier, for instance. It’s interesting to me that Time Light Box offered Mark the chance to determine the subject of his article and that he chose to narrow his focus on this group of women with a connection to Massachusetts working relatively quietly. Obviously I really like that he did that!”

Although Steinmetz visited BGSU five years ago at her invitation, the two have not kept in regular contact and she was pleasantly surprised when he asked her to be in his edition of Off the Radar. The piece has also served to reconnect people, she said. “Mark told me it’s been very well-received, with emails from friends and colleagues he had not heard from in decades, since being posted in May,” she said.

In the four Whitney photos, several bodies of work are represented. The first two images are from a series concerning young women (most were novitiates) in convents. In the first, a novitiate self-consciously reclines for the camera; in the second, two novitiates, twins, positioned by a window, reflect the temporal and the ethereal. Next is an image from her series exploring young people in uniform in which a woman in the military Reserve sits quietly, reverently, in a frosty Massachusetts woods in full battle gear. The fourth image is from a series encompassing landscape, animals and farms and depicts wooden outbuildings nestled deep in snow where, in the midst of this, one finds a white dog peering at the camera. Culled from larger bodies of work from what may seem very disparate subjects, the medium of photography — frame, light, moment, time and point of view — seamlessly structure these pictures, which are suffused with a soft clarity and a deep sense of stillness.

Raised in Concord, Mass., Whitney grew up with the influence of American philosophy icons Emerson and Thoreau “in my backyard,” so it is perhaps natural that “history plays a big part in my work. I see that in the landscape and the people,” she said.

Her diverse academic background presages and reflects her professional work. Her bachelor’s degree, from Boston University, was in American studies, followed by a bachelor of fine arts, in photography, from the Massachusetts College of Art, and an MFA from Yale University, also in photography.

Since leaving New England, Whitney’s pictures have not changed significantly in technique or even in subject although she admits to have broadened her scope a bit by taking on commissions from the Toledo Museum of Art, in 2008, for pictures of the construction of the 1-280 bridge and the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland for its annual report, in 2009.

“I am interested in what anchors us here — the land, ritual and communities. I don’t have a road map for my life and I think I make pictures really to find my way,” she said.

Describing herself wryly as “not a very imaginative person,” Whitney said, “Although I have tremendous respect for those who can think up problems to solve, I travel about this region and, in the past, more of this country, looking, hoping that what I see will tell me what is important to interpret with my camera. It's the tradition of great photographers before me and a way to thank these artists for giving me so much. I use an 8 x 10 camera and film; that is about the only change I have made since the ’80s when I began — just bigger, slower and equally challenging.”

The Gund Foundation, a major philanthropic fund based in Cleveland devoted to promoting well-being through the arts, environment and education, has for over 25 years commissioned well-known photographers to produce images for its annual reports. Whitney and Sohier are among those selected. In 2009 the report focused on the work the foundation had been engaged with pertaining to the lakefront along the Cuyahoga County coastline. With her background in American culture studies and her recent bridge commission for the TMA, Whitney was selected for the commission. Her work followed that of Frank Golhke, “one of the all-time best and someone I deeply respect,” she said, who was awarded the commission in 1997 to photograph Lake Erie.

Whitney brought Golhke to BGSU in the late 1990s as part of her ongoing efforts to expose students to inspiring artists.

Her work is in the collections of the Toledo Museum of Art (where she had a solo show of the I-280 bridge project), the Cleveland Clinic and Yale University. Whitney is profiled in the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College.