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Photography Review

A look at animals, real and unreal

'Whale Shark,' Karen Glaser Karen Glaser captures the otherworldly existence of life under the surface of the ocean in works like "Whale Shark." (Karen Glaser)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / February 4, 2010

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WINCHESTER - Through March 28, the Griffin Museum of Photography becomes an outpost of the animal kingdom. Some of the creatures to be seen there are under water. Others have lived only on the page. A few seem to be waiting outside a psychiatrist’s office. Whatever the locale, there’s nary a picture with a human or human handiwork to be seen in any of the three shows currently hanging.

“Dark Sharks/Light Rays: Photographs by Karen Glaser’’ offers a titular hat trick: It simultaneously rhymes, puns, and describes succinctly. The rhyme is obvious, the pun less so - the rays are the kind that swim in the ocean as well as those that reach the eye. As for the description, 15 large photographs of sharks (the pictures are 2 feet by 3 feet) line the walls of the Griffin’s main gallery. And dark they are: sinister silhouettes of grainy texture shown moving through an underwater murk. The sheer otherness of the watery world Glaser captures is breathtaking.

There are hammerheads, white sharks, whale sharks. They look brooding, weighty, minatory. They’d get more than just a squint, a lot more, from Sam Quint, the shark hunter in “Jaws.’’ “Shark Surge Down,’’ for example, shows a flotilla of hammerheads seen in descent. It’s a spooky and overwhelming image.

The sharks seem to be circling the other nine photographs in the gallery, which show rays and are hung on temporary walls. These images are lighter and finer - “printed like graceful etchings,’’ Glaser says in an artist’s statement. They’re also appreciably smaller, 6 inches by 9 inches. The rays look like positives to the sharks’ negatives. They also seem somehow to have escaped their fluid medium and taken to the sky. In “Light Rays,’’ from 2007, they look like moths or butterflies; in “Ray School,’’ like a flock of birds in flight. The overall effect is of delicacy and airiness. It’s both liberated and liberating. Glaser speaks of “a realm where natural history gives way to the ineffable.’’ Her photographs open windows on to that ineffability.

The point of departure for Laszlo Layton isn’t beyond the shore but between covers. He takes vintage natural history illustrations and photographs them with antique soft-focus lenses. The results are renderings of renderings, images of great charm and refinement, with a unique temporal trajectory. The original illustrations date from the 19th century. Layton photographs them with the equipment and aims of such early-20th-century Pictorialist photographers as Clarence White or Gertrude Kasebier. And the result, with its layerings of time and technique, is very much a product of our own era.

Layton’s creatures in “Cabinet of Curiosity & Pictorial Zoology’’ exist in some strange, and strangely inviting, netherworld between reality and artifice. A sense of wonder suffuses this bestiary, its inhabitants examples of real species who are also pure-bred products of the imagination.

Each of the 15 images in “Animal: Photographs by Elliot Ross’’ bears a nearly identical title: “Animal (2),’’ “Animal (40),’’ and so on. Many of the creatures are readily identifiable: an eagle, an owl, a kangaroo (or is it a wallaby?). Yet Ross indicates no species, as if to underscore that he wants viewers to see his subjects as individually, if also as anonymously, as people walking down the street. “Each image,’’ he writes, “is not only a portrait of a nonhuman animal; it is, in many ways, a self-portrait, and also a question: What can be known and what is unknowable about individuals of other animal species?’’

These black-and-white pictures, which are big (a foot by nearly a foot and a half), definitely have a sense of personality. But that very sense gives them a distinctly unreal quality. Ross acknowledges he uses digital imaging techniques on these photographs, presumably to enhance the animal’s “personality’’ - the need to use quotation marks suggests the peculiarity of the situation here. That, too, contributes to the unreal quality. Ross’s subjects seem less citizens of the animal kingdom than highly dubious applicants for a green card in ours. It’s enough to make Lou Dobbs want to boycott the ASPCA.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Elliot Ross gives his animals a sense of personality — as in 'Animal (11).' (Elliot Ross) Elliot Ross gives his animals a sense of personality — as in "Animal (11)."

DARK SHARKS/LIGHT RAYS: Photographs by Karen Glaser

CABINET OF CURIOSITY & PICTORIAL ZOOLOGY: Photographs by Laszlo Layton

ANIMAL: Photographs by Elliot Ross

At: the Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through March 28. Call 781-729-1158 or go to www.griffinmuseum.org.