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Interview & Portfolio: Karin Rosenthal

Love Knot, 1991 -- Karin Rosenthal

We are pleased to announce that a full portfolio of photographs from the Nudes in Water series by Karin Rosenthal are now available through the Photographer Showcase. Karin Rosenthal is one of the fifteen photographers included in our current group exhibition The Nude – Classical, Cultural, Contemporary. The photographs in this exhibit range from classical studies to the exploration of cultural and contemporary themes; some are playful and some investigate more existential realms, while others manage to combine multiple elements. Rosenthal has been photographing the human form for over 30 years creating images that are surreal yet classical. I have asked Rosenthal to tell us about her background and her images. --Anne Kelly

Anne Kelly:     Who are your Influences?

Karin Rosenthal:     When I was 6 years old, I asked for a camera for my birthday. That was highly unusual for a girl (even a boy) in the early fifties. But I had already been hanging out in the darkroom in our basement from the age of 3 with my mother and grandmother. Photography was almost as basic to our family as eating. My grandmother was self-taught in Germany and had a darkroom in her Dresden house. She taught
Karin Rosenthal and family
my mother, who also studied painting in Germany. I was the third generation of women photographers in our family. My father was an ophthalmologist who brought Zeiss equipment to the US when he and my mom emigrated in 1937 so that he could record unique diseases of the retina. My older brother also has done photography all his life, becoming a highly regarded architectural photographer. When we went on trips, we all had cameras, ranging from 35mm to Rolleiflexes to stereo and movie cameras... no ordinary family at the National Parks. I assisted my mother when she photographed children in West Hartford and commented on revisions to her paintings when she took painting classes. She critiqued my photographs. Throughout my childhood we visited numerous museums in the US and Europe and went to art openings, including several of my mom's. My childhood introduction to photography had a profound effect on me.

When I was in college, I got a membership to MoMA and went there every chance I got. I wrote papers at MoMA for my History of Art classes and knew their photo collection by heart. Seeing major MoMA showings by two highly accomplished women photographers, Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott, gave me remarkable new female role models. During the Seventies, I was drawn to the surrealist photographs of Man Ray and Bill Brandt and the dreamlike images of Ralph Gibson. Harry Callahan’s graphic simplicity, Edward Weston’s formalism, and Eikoh Hosoe’s minimal yet spiritual nudes also affected me deeply, as has the work of Ruth Bernhard and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen. Viewing art forms other than photography influenced me. Before I arrived in Greece on my year’s fellowship, I saw a painter friend’s delicate watercolors of rocks with human overtones, and, in England, Henry Moore’s giant carved wooden women.

Squiggle Nude, 1996 and Frog Princess I, 1988 -- Karin Rosenthal

AK:     In your street photographs, man is disconnected from his environment. In your nudes they are part of the landscape, sometimes becoming it. Can you discuss this?

KR:     I taught photography to drug-addicted Vietnam Veterans and kids from Cambridge projects to pay my way through art school. I came to see urban life through the eyes of people on the periphery of our society. My street photography showed a lot of the isolation, loneliness and alienation that exists in modern cities. Many people dwell within their own dramas, lost in time and space, not connecting with each other or the place they are in. In the enlightening film "Street" which I just viewed at the Metropolitan Museum, people in the city pass each other, rarely acknowledging another person or their context. In my later twenties, I began to spend more time in the country and found it to be a spiritual sanctuary that connected me to existence in a way urban environments never had. Nature strips away culture and gets to the profound essence of our being: we come from the land and return to the land. We are one with nature.

AK:     You’ve talked about your Nudes in Water as a manifestation of both the conscious and unconscious. What do you mean by this?

Nude Solarization, 1977 -- Karin Rosenthal
KR:     One of the first images I made in the Nudes in Water series was of a woman seated in water. I decided to use the Sabattier effect (Solarization) in printing it. Because that darkroom process is done on higher contrast paper, I was able to dodge and bring up detail in the body under the water. A white Mackie line surrounded and unified the above-water and below-water person. That which lurks in the water has always symbolized the unconscious for me, and I found the merging of conscious and unconscious worlds a more complete representation of a person than one part alone. We are motivated by forces we are not aware of. From then on, I used underwater elements to evoke a lurking reality, a sense of other worlds (like dreams) coexisting with the easily known. The power of my non-conscious awareness came to bear later during my fellowship in Greece. All winter long, I had observed (with
delight) the magnificent contours of mountainous coastlines with reflected sunlight dancing at their edges. A few months later, without my thinking about it, that coastline imagery joined with the figure, making them one and the same. A body landscape motif has played in and out of my images ever since. All that one loves (and even all that one hates) is potential fodder for one's art.

Source, 1998 -- Karin Rosenthal

AK:     You have always been attracted to abstraction — what are your thought on color vs. B&W in abstraction?

Arp, 2004 -- Karin Rosenthal
KR:     B&W is inherently more abstract than color, providing less specific information. I tend not to like images that are too literal; they are just seeing the surface and confusing the viewer with too much detail. The more I've worked with color, the more I've found abstraction within it. Much of that comes from pushing seeing beyond the obvious in an almost scientific way and using reflections to inject the figure into a scene, fusing it with other elements. My upbringing and schooling in painting and sculpture contribute greatly to the abstraction in my more recent work. Modern art paved the way for simplicity, distortion, color fields, all sorts of ways of organizing content. There are numerous references to modern painters in the Tide Pool series... to Chagall, Picasso, Klimt, and Escher, to name a few. The very first piece I did with a figure reflected in a tide pool is titled Arp because it reminds me of Jean Arp's work. The model stood and leaned over the pool. I photographed the pool only, her reflection joining with shells above and below the surface of the water. One no longer saw the figure, rather, hot dog and boomerang shapes. The head was a shell.

AK:     Tell us a little bit about your working process.

Karin Rosenthal shooting
KR:     I like to work on one series at a time, with total concentration on my subject. When highly focused, I notice the accidents that happen -- white flesh and black flesh manifesting from the same body, dune grasses joining with pubic air in one bright continuum. Some of my most significant work has happened accidentally. I also like to build a visual vocabulary with light and water that I can repeat -- how to create an aura, how to put white lines around forms, how to create blackwater, how to make a reflected figure appear to be made of rock, how to get multiple tiny, but intact, human figures to show up with one click of the shutter, etc. Increasingly, as both my B&W and color work have become more macro, I have used my camera a little like a microscope from my biology days. I want to observe and capture magical new worlds that are in front of our eyes, but that we don't see.

Santorini, 1981 and Lily Pads, 1991 -- Karin Rosenthal

AK:     Over the years you have worked with many models – for you how does it differ working with men vs. women?

KR:     Initially, I photographed both men and women. Then, in Greece, when the body landscape motif became part of my work, I decided that female contours looked more like land and worked mostly with women. As is so often the case, I learned that was only a shallow truth. When I continued the series a few years later on Cape Cod, a man's buttocks became lily pads, two men became a dynamic vortex, and a father and son sitting next to each other echoed landscape. Since I care less about the erotic overtones of my subjects and more about their human connection to land, I work with males and females interchangeably, seeing them the same way. We are all on the same spiritual journey.

AK:     You have moved from photographing models to reflections of models – please talk about this transition.

Body Reflection, 2007 and Interior World, 2003 -- Karin Rosenthal

KR:     My first photograph of a reflected model happened by accident in the Southwest in 1991. I was setting up my equipment and checking through the lens when I saw my dancer model reflected in a small pool of water. Bored, she was on the riverbank doing her morning stretches while she waited for me. I moved her arms minimally and took the shot. That led to a series of Canyon Nudes in color (1991-1996), using only reflected figures. The summers I worked on those images in the Southwest, I also continued my Nudes in Water on Cape Cod. In many ways, the Canyon Nudes were a response to some scary storms we experienced on our houseboat trip. Nature was powerful and survival was fragile. The figures in the Nudes in Water, by contrast, were sculptural and solid, actual bodies joined with their reflections, having a strong presence equivalent with nature. But by 2003, even the B&Ws were moving more towards the tenuousness of existence. My consciousness and that around me had changed after 9/11. As I was aging, I was also experiencing significant losses in my life. A greater sense of dissolution and fusion with nature was entering the images. I began craving more natural material to work with, more complexity, and changed venues to an island off the coast of Maine. A new color series of Tide Pool Figures began with nature and reflected figures merged into one. As the series has continued, the scope has become not just earthly, but cosmic, with humans even more of a speck in the continuum of creation.

Dune, 1996 -- Karin Rosenthal

A selection of Rosenthal's work can currently be seen as part of The Nude on exhibit at photo-eye through April and features the work of fifteen photographers. Two portfolios of work from the show can be viewed here.

For additional information about Karin Rosenthal's work or to acquire a photograph, please contact the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202 or by email.