"Wild Edges," Madison photographer Gregory Conniff's new show at the Chazen Museum of Art, focuses on the kinds of landscapes many of us ignore. In his large black-and-white, digitally printed pictures of Dane County, Lafayette County, Miss., and Duchess County, N.Y., a single spindly birch tree cuts through the foreground in front of a manicured field. Or a remarkably detailed and toned thicket of trees and brush crowd up next to flat, scrubby clearings traversed by power and telephone lines.
For Conniff, these seemingly humble landscapes wedged between farm fields and roadways brim with potential and offer a direct, unmediated kind of beauty. "There's where all the hope is ' where all the wild stuff is going on, creating a future on the margins of managed land. There's real life going on there without anybody knowing what it's doing."
When he's working, Conniff first captures that tangle of life on conventional film. But he uses digital tools to bring out qualities of light and contrast that would be very difficult to achieve in the time-sensitive world of the darkroom. As a result, every gray leaf, every dry blade of grass has an almost tactile reality.
"I don't cut things in," says Conniff, explaining his use of the computer. "I don't move things around. I don't make artificial landscapes. I'm just doing things that you'd do in the darkroom, but I have all the time in the world to do it."
Thanks to a refined four-black ink printing process and the use of heavy-grade oversized paper, Conniff's final pictures have a heft and a level of detail that make "Wild Edges" envelop the viewer. They come across as much more than a series of discrete pictures on a couple walls.
Conniff's work is held by major museums throughout the country, and he continues to show widely. Later this month, a version of "Wild Edges" will open at the Candace Dwan Gallery in New York. In October, several of the new large ink pieces and smaller silver prints from the '80s will be included in a show at the Art Institute of Chicago called "Photographs by the Score: Personal Visions Twenty-Some Years Apart."
Conniff's first one-man show at the Chazen comes 36 years after he moved to Madison from the East Coast. "It's not just a show of pictures that I'm absorbed with at this moment right now," he says. "It is an installation. There are no wall labels. All you have is the experience of the pictures, and I would really like it if to some extent it creates a sense of place."
"The show is not about me," he adds. "It's about being in the world."
"WILD EDGES" RUNS THROUGH NOV. 5 AT THE CHAZEN MUSEUM OF ART. CONNIFF LECTURES AT 5:30 P.M. ON FRIDAY, SEPT. 8; A RECEPTION FOLLOWS AT 6:30 P.M.