Atlanta Journal Constitution 24-09-2006

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Sunday 24-9-2006
Photographic sleights

By JERRY CULLUM for the Journal-Constitution

Ruud van Empel has been one of the hottest things going lately, if magazine stories and prices of his work are any indication.
The Dutch photographer's staring-eyed black children immersed in romantic jungles like those in an Henri Rousseau painting have touched a popular nerve. ("World", the series containing these images, follows similarly unnerving portfolios featuring white subjects.)
These claustrophobically fantastic jungles, eerily luminous eyes and slick skins are tricks of photo-manipulation programs. They're like the digital tricks that the phenomenally popular photographer Loretta Lux has been playing on children for some time. (Her work can also be seen at Jackson Fine Art.)
All van Empel's photographs play on old Romantic themes, but this series is treading on risky visual territory. If Lux's children look like science fiction's proverbial pod people, van Empel's kids look a bit like zombies.
Yet this isn't really a fair assessment. These children are more like fairy-tale creatures, and the dark skins against the poisonously bright greens of a fake actual jungle are a stunning color combination. The play upon our childhood imaginings and emotions.
So no one ought to confuse them with racist stereotypes. They're first cousins to Lux's manipulated photographic creations, and also to the haunted figures in the theatrically mysterious but unmanipulated photos of Gregory Crewdson.
The whole current high-art fascination with creepiness is worth pursuing. The inventory compiled at Jackson Fine Art by Anna Walker Skillman provides one place from which to start.
Her gallery's companion show to van Empel, Finnish photographer Sanna Kannisto, is more transcendently eerie, with its hummingbirds silhouetted against bright white backgrounds. But it is the perfect complement and contrast to van Empel's work.
Kannisto photographs real scientific expeditions in ways that look strangely fake. A documentary photo shows tropical leaves spread across an office. It's just the aftermath of graduate students' counting and categorizing, but it looks as sinister as one of Crewdson's set-up pictures. Kannisto's photos of hummingbirds caught against gauzy white fabric loos as fabricated as van Empel's images. They're not.
Some surreal-looking photos are the results of documentary images gone wrong. One photo looks like a stuffed bird sitting beneath a branch held in a clamp that substitutes for a tree. It's actually a shot of an uncoorporative bird.
The intent was to use the branch as a prop on which to have the bird sit for its close-up, but it chose the wooden base under the branch instead. A standard bit of illusion, using a real branch to help document a living zoological specimen, turns into an genuinely strange looking situation.
We live in a time whem fake things look real and real things look often fake. The new manipulated and staged photography makes us freshly aware of all that.

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