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Beverly couple find inspiration for art in their own backyard

Photographers Paul Osborne and Catherine Davis in the garden of their home in Beverly. (Globe Staff / Joanne Rathe) Photographers Paul Osborne and Catherine Davis in the garden of their home in Beverly.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2008

Maybe it works because they're both lawyers, civil litigators trained in negotiation. But Paul Osborne and Catherine Davis, who are married, cheerfully insist their photographic collaboration in Beverly runs smoothly. It's a notion that perhaps runs counter to prevailing ideas of the artistic temperament.

"Who does what is not really set. I might not like something originally, I might not think it's going to work. But we'll try it and see, and I might be surprised," Davis said.

"We've decided with our photography . . . that if it's a product one of us doesn't like, that one of us doesn't feel good about, then we don't use it. So we both have to be happy with the image."

"We both decide when it's right," said Osborne, "because we both do the setup together, and we both look at what we're seeing through the viewfinder."

Who holds the camera?

"Well, the tripod" said Davis, laughing.

Who presses the shutter? "Sometimes I do it, and sometimes Kate does it," Osborne said. "We don't record it, so we don't know which one of us did what shots."

In any case, they've produced a series of striking photographs of blooms from their gardens, which are on display along with a few landscapes at the Newburyport Art Association's Laura Coombs Hills Gallery through Wednesday.

"When somebody is able to throw at the viewer an oversized image of what in real life is actually very small, it gives you a wonderful feeling and a totally different perspective or way to look at something that you just consider to be a part of everyday life," said art association executive director Dean Wills.

"We always look at the big picture and miss the small things, and they've been able to switch that around, which is kind of neat."

They sit side by side at the computer when they're Photoshopping. Osborne says Davis is more often responsible for arranging the composition. "If it has to be hand-held it has to be Paul, because I am not steady," Davis said.

"We've been together so long that the ego part of it is not part of the equation," said Osborne. "It has been a wonderful process to find something that we can do and feel good about together."

He's from Newton; she's from Beverly. The couple met in 1969 at Brandeis and they've been together ever since, marrying in 1982.

They went to Boston University School of Law together, and worked together in legal services in Pennsylvania for a few years before returning to Massachusetts. He continued practicing law, while she stepped back to be a stay-at-home mom to their daughter Alexis, now 23.

The home in question is the one she grew up in, which she inherited in 1981. The house was built in 1949 on a lot that was once a corner of a larger estate, and the property is graced with plantings, including old rhododendrons and the peonies that were Davis's father's favorites to put on canvas. Her father, Emery Davis, an industrial artist by trade, was an avid gardener and painted many pictures of his flowers.

"I have a lot" of his pictures, Davis said, and there must be others in homes around town. She's the lead gardener of the house now, working organically.

Osborne and Davis had long enjoyed photography, but they got serious about it in 2005, when a cancer diagnosis hit Osborne during a sabbatical from his Wakefield law firm.

The diagnosis and treatment, including a stem-cell transplant, was "really what focused us on what was at hand to photograph, and I think gave us the perspective on what we had around us," Osborne said.

"We started looking just where we were and seeing what we had," said Davis. "We really started to look closely at the flowers and plants we had, and were amazed at all the detail that perhaps in our busy lives you don't really focus on. And so we started to do our close-ups."

After some experimentation, the couple derived a method for photographing flowers. They cut the blooms from the stem and arrange them on black velvet - not in a studio, as you might expect, but outdoors, in natural light. The pictures are taken with a Nikon F100 camera and Fuji professional slide film that they send out to be developed - "a dying art," Osborne notes.

Back home in Beverly, the couple scan the slides at a high resolution, then tweak the images as needed. They sometimes print them at home, but more often through a Worcester lab that uses lasers on photo paper, "producing very sharp, clean, detailed prints," Osborne said. The black background brings out the color and shading and detail in the blooms.

"They're lit from within, kind of," Davis said. "What I've concluded is these flowers want to attract the bees, and these petals reflect the light in a way that it's clear how to home in, you know? And that gets into the title of our show, 'Seductions,' because of course the flowers are attracting the bees and they're attracting us as well."

The exhibit is at the Newburyport Art Association, 65 Water St., Newburyport, 978-465-8769. You can also see their photos at www.osbornedavisphoto.com.

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