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Past the Pane

Past the pane
Joseph Scheer's spectacular photographs on display at WNYBAC

Photographer Joseph Scheer has a whole new way of producing and presenting his work. He makes photo books of multiple unbound individual pages in sequence, and handsome wooden boxes to contain them. A half dozen or so of his boxed books and score or so of framed individual photos—selected photos from the books for the most part—are on exhibit at the Western New York Book Arts Center.

Spectacular work all around. In terms of the unusual nature and quality of the photography, and book production technique and end product. The title of the exhibit is Through a Dirty Window. It refers to one of the books in particular, of photos taken rapid-fire through a window of a high-speed passenger train along about half of the route from Shenyang to Beijing, China, on a late afternoon in December, 2013. The book consists of 417 ten-inch by twenty-nine-inch pages, three images per page—so you see continuity from image to image, but also from page to page—for a total of about 1,250 images (the last page includes a map of the trip route).

The distance from Shenyang to Beijing is about 440 miles, the photographer explains in the book preface, but he could only take photos during the first half of the trip, after which it just got too dark. “It was one of those special ‘China Grey’ winter days,” he says, “the kind the country is becoming well known for. Every once in a while the sun would come out of the grey and glow orange onto the landscape.” Continuous camera adjustments were necessary in the changing light conditions, “and as the trip progressed, the pictures became grainier and contain more ‘noise’ in a very beautiful kind of way.”

Another book of photos from China is called I Ride My Tricycle. It consists of 427 pages, one photo per fourteen-inch by nineteen-inch page, of rickshaw-type tricycles, and usually the owner/operator, that is, pedaler, used in China for transportation for people and hauling every sort of goods from food to trash to construction materials. There are photos of abandoned wrecks of tricycles in trash lots, and others of such age and dilapidated state that in the United States you could only find the like in a trash pile, but still in active service.

Other work is from Mexico. A book of 142 pages of greatly enlarged photos of moths, all specimens collected on a collection apparatus—basically a light under a white sheet—on the single night of October 10, 2010. A book of 452 pages of similarly enlarged photos of caterpillars, captured in the wild or bred and nurtured by the photographer specifically as subjects to be photographed, from Sonoma and from upstate New York (when Scheer is not traveling the world, he teaches at Alfred University). A third book from Sonoma consists of 1,322 pages of enormous cacti. Who knew cacti could grow that big and elaborate?

The astonishing depth and detail of the moth and caterpillar photos in particular is owing to the photographer’s high-tech capture apparatus and process. As exhibit curator Lawrence Brose explains in a brief essay in the exhibit booklet, “these images are created by scanning the actual moth up to thirty times at various focal lengths on a flatbed scanner, rendering then with a clarity beyond what the naked eye can see.” The moths and caterpillars are blown up to about football size. On the corner of each sheet is a reproduction of the main image critter at actual size.

Another boxed book consists of 484 frames of video in still photos showing an approximately sixteen-second sequence of a dancer (portraying a deer) in a religious festival in Sonoma.

Of interesting note in the light of the recent rail tragedy in Philadelphia when a train on what is probably the most important passenger train corridor in the United States (in terms of volume of passenger traffic) derailed going 102 mph through a section officially limited to 50 mph—and in light of the general political lack of will since about the World War II era to properly fund this most economically efficient and environmentally sensible mode of transportation—the Shenyang to Beijing train travels much of the distance at a speed of about 152 mph. Sheer says in the book preface that when the track is totally upgraded, the line will have of maximum design speed of about 220 mph, though regular service will operate at only about 125 to 185 mph. But travel time between Shenyang and Beijing will then be cut from the current 4 plus hours to 2 hours and 17 minutes. The distance is just about the distance from Buffalo to New York City, which by Amtrak is basically an all-day journey.

The Joseph Sheer exhibit continues through June 26.

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