While photography has been connected to evidence and truth, practitioners have always manipulated images to create reality. And in the 1950s American photographer Jerry Uelsmann furthered the effort by experimenting with multiple enlargers and advanced masking, diffusing, burning, and dodging techniques to create imaginary images in the darkroom decades before the advent of Photoshop.
Uelsmann — whose work references surrealist artists — continues his traditional darkroom techniques today. So does Maggie Taylor, a fine artist who in addition to being married to Uelsmann also creates a surreal world through photographs — though she uses Photoshop. “Maggie and I have to invent our realities,” Uelsmann says.
Taylor and Uelsmann protege and Princeton-area photographer Martha Weintraub also has to invent her own realities and will be exhibiting her fantastical photographs in “Story Hour” at the Gallery at Chapin School, from Monday, January 5, through Friday, January 30. The opening reception is Wednesday, January 7, from 5 to 7 p.m.
As a former writer and editor of children’s textbooks, Weintraub explores her love of children’s literature in this exhibit. Some of the images she has created evoke classic children’s tales. She uses her granddaughters Natalie, 6, and Miranda, 3, as models — and that’s where reality ends.
In “Tea Party,” for example, we see a blonde girl in a wing chair — presumably Alice — seated at a table, set with a blue-and-white tea set, with another blonde girl in Mad Hatter millinery; sandwiched between them is a rabbit in a flannel shirt. The woody landscape behind them, with its arching branches, was shot at Grounds For Sculpture. Also from “Alice in Wonderland” is a scene of the young heroine talking to a hookah-smoking caterpillar on top of a mushroom. (It should be noted that Weintraub was selected for this exhibition by former Chapin curator Dallas Piotrowski, an artist who has created her own illustrations of Alice and is a serious collector of children’s literature.) Yet another shows a blonde girl in a dress covered with hearts chasing a rabbit down a hole.
Other tales illustrated include Rapunzel — a little girl looks down from the top window of a stone tower, her blond tresses flowing down to a lower parapet; Little Boy Blue (he sits alongside a haystack with his brass horn with sheep in the meadow and cow in the corn); and Little Red Riding Hood.
Then there are more generic images, such as an open book by a window upon and around which frolic such beloved characters as the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz,” Winnie the Pooh, Humpty Dumpty, Babar, Pinocchio, the Three Bears, and the Little Engine that Could. Weintraub spends endless hours at her computer, building up layer upon layer to create these fanciful scenes.
The Hillsborough resident lives with her husband, David “Smoky” Wurtzel, a photographer who also exhibits at Gallery 14 in Hopewell, where Weintraub serves as president. Between them (they both had previous marriages) they have five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Eighteen family members gathered around their Thanksgiving table — the same table that was used as a prop for “Tea Party.”
The couple met in the mid 1990s through a mutual friend, and Wurtzel gave Weintraub her first SLR camera in 1998. But it was with her first digital camera, given to her in the early 2000s, that Weintraub found her medium, she says. As she observed sunlight shining on flowers on her kitchen windowsill — some of the light was colored by passing through vases on the shelf — she created a series of abstract flower pictures. These look like fairies dancing in the garden. Fairies are a theme that re-emerge in the current “Story Hour” exhibit.
Weintraub joined Gallery 14 in 2005 and has exhibited regularly ever since. Her dining room looks like a gallery, with framed works by both Weintraub and Wurtzel from past exhibits. There are selections from her “About Books” exhibit, a sort of precursor to “Story Hour.”
Weintraub and Wurtzel found compatibility in their mutual wanderlust. In 2000, after their third date, Wurtzel invited her to join him on a trip to Antarctica on the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle in the new millennium. Antarctica was not on her bucket list, but she remains grateful to Wurtzel for introducing her to that land. “It’s beautiful in an odd sort of way. Stark. Everything is white and black under a blue sky. Plants grow about a millimeter a year, like moss. All the animals, even the birds, are black and white,” she says.
It was summer in Antarctica, and after lectures about the wildlife their ship made three or four stops a day during which they got off in small rubber boats. Wurtzel’s photographs show the half a million penguins in an otherwise desolate place. Weintraub uses nature as a backdrop for her digital illustrations. Like Uelsmann, Smoky — the name comes from his high school days, when a teacher saw him hiding a cigarette in his pocket — still uses a film camera and a chemical darkroom.
In this home gallery we can observe Weintraub’s evolution into surrealism and fantasy. In “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we see a stage set with fairies and sprites and twinkling lights in the background. The twinkling lights were made from a photograph of her college Shakespeare textbook, painted gold, then reduced to firefly size and surrounded with a golden halo — the effect of the open pages is of wings.
What makes Weintraub’s work believable — unlike some cut-and-paste uses of Photoshop — is how she adds shadows to the objects and figures she layers into a scene. “It took a long time to learn and lots of experimentation,” she says. There were online tutorials, and she taught herself to use gold and silver pens to add accents.
“City of Books,” a cityscape of leather volumes, won Best in Show at Phillip’s Mill in 2012. There are Gothic doorways to hidden universes in the spines of the books. An assemblage on this theme has a gold watch dangling from a fob — when you pull it the interior is illuminated, and you can see a white rabbit on a path.
Prior to her photographic experimentations in the last decade, Weintraub had no art background. The political science and English major at the University of Denver, Colorado (Class of 1965), grew up in Stratford, Connecticut, home of the American Shakespeare Theater where, for two summers, she worked as a dresser, helping actors change between scenes and keep costumes mended. “My sister, who also worked there, was sent to kill a fly in Katharine Hepburn’s dressing room,” Weintraub recounts, “after the ‘African Queen’ bugs upset her.”
Weintraub’s father, an engineer for Sikorsky Helicopter, died in 1998. Her mother, 101, lives in the house Weintraub grew up in. Blind, she took up swimming five years ago and for her 100th birthday swam 20 laps in a 75-foot pool. “She’s sharp as a tack and loves to talk politics. She told her friends that life begins at 70 and began singing in the church choir and bowling when she turned that age.”
When Weintraub’s mother had to have a lumpectomy, she scheduled it so she wouldn’t miss bowling. When she returned to the game, and her scores improved, she told everyone “I’m thinking of having the other one done.”
Weintraub, who is 72, moved to Hillsborough in 1986 when her first husband got a job at Bell Labs. How does Weintraub follow up her mother’s pronouncement that life begins at 70? She took up riding a recumbent tricycle at 70 and completed 67 miles in a day at a competitive event in Salisbury, Maryland.
Weintraub considers Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac a mentor. Kassof-Isaac encouraged her and sponsored her to get into the gallery, and suggested she use her spritely granddaughters — residents of Brooklyn — as models.
“They were here for visits, and they love jumping, so I photographed them jumping.” Weintraub also photographed them at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, near their home, and that led to the theme of Alice.
Some of the scenes are more generic, because Weintraub wants viewers to invent their own stories.
She demonstrates the creation of “Little Red Riding Hood.” “First I had to find a forest with a path that would work. Then I had to find the right wolf to approach the girl in the red dress.” The girl’s dress was initially white and had to be painted red, the path had to be added, and, of course, a basket. “I darkened the path and added flowers to the basket. And I darkened her hair so it looks right for being in shadow.”
All of the images are surrounded by a frame of a scrolling line, suggestive of Victorian children’s book illustrations.
Wurtzel, who sits quietly in his study, working on his MacBook, tells a story that Weintraub is too modest to recount. When Weintraub was first beginning on her path of creating a fantasy world, spending hours learning to master techniques, Smoky — he was her first photography instructor — thought she needed a mentor to discuss these new techniques.
“Martha was doing terrific work, but didn’t have confidence in herself,” he says. “She was going in an aesthetic direction where she needed direction from someone higher up in the profession. So I thought of Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor. Maggie had been a student at Yale, and then went to graduate school to study with Jerry. I found their E-mail and asked if they’d consider doing a critique of Martha’s work.”
At first the answer was a resounding no, but after Wurtzel persisted Taylor wrote back and conceded. Weintraub and Wurtzel flew to Gainesville, Florida, to meet them. “We sat at their kitchen table, and Jerry picked up one of Martha’s prints and said, ‘This is good stuff.’”
“It was a great boost,” says Weintraub. “I had been ready to give up. [Maggie] took me to her computer and showed me things. Then I took a workshop with her in California.”
Weintraub has six works in the permanent collection at the University Medical Center at Princeton in Plainsboro, and another dozen or so works in a hospital outside of Philadelphia. She has exhibited at Grounds For Sculpture, Artsbridge at Prallsville Mills, and New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery.
It all began with a love of children’s books, and now she is creating her own.
Story Hour, Photographs by Martha Weintraub, The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, Lawrence, from Monday, January 5, through Friday, January 30, Reception for the artist Wednesday, January 7, 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit can also be viewed during school hours by appointment by calling 609-924-7206. www.chapinschool.org/The-Gallery-at-Chapin.