Elsie Hull at Spectrum
By John Anderson
M Street in Georgetown is a noisy place, bustling, and energetic. There are many bars and boutiques to duck into, if one wants to escape the hysteria. Another choice is Spectrum Gallery, around the corner on 29th street, where a very quiet exhibition of photographs by Elsie Hull are currently on display. The space is small and serene, and perhaps the perfect setting for these black and white images.
“Photography has always been my first love,” Hull declares enthusiastically. Trained as a painter at the Corcoran, where she earned her BFA, Hull did not fully engage photography until beginning her MFA in film and video production at American University. “I took a photography class at the Corcoran, but I thought it was too easy… I didn’t fully engage it then,” she admitted.
The body of work is easy on the eyes and inviting. The title of the show, Portals, lends nicely to the imagery. Each image appears as a window into another environment, partially from the quiet activity within each image, and also through the physicality imposed by the camera. Hull uses a Holga camera, a simple, inexpensive, medium format camera sometimes used by schools to introduce photography to students. The final image is circular, something uncommon with most forms of photography. “You never know what you are going to get; you might end up with double exposures or artifacts.”
Through constant use, Hull’s familiarity with how the camera functioned gave her an educated guess as to the final product, but the lack of total control has kept the process fun for her.
But there is a dichotomy found within her process. Hull approaches her subject from behind digital cameras and Hasselblad medium format cameras. All three cameras share the same generic wide angle lens, impulsively purchased from a New York photo store. Through careful dissection of several Holga cameras, Hull was able to find a way to attach the lens to that camera, and eventually to all the cameras she uses in her work. All her images are later scanned into a digital format and manipulated in Photoshop. “I use very basic Photoshop stuff, dark room techniques. Photoshop allows you to be very specific whereas a darkroom doesn’t unless you are doing large prints.” Beyond that, Hull prefers not to do any further manipulation beyond canceling out the black “vignette-ing” that occurs through the process of exposing medium format film.
Because the final image is circular, Hull has addressed each image with a unique presentation. Mounted on matte-board and Velcroed to multiple, small, primed canvases, Hull is able to arrange the framing of each piece in such an articulate manner that it neither distracts from the image nor questions specifically what is the correct way to frame a circular photograph; it is simply interesting.
The supports alternate, sometimes depending on the subject of the photograph, sometimes related to a series of pieces. One wall possesses a rhythm of large and small support compositions that pull the viewer along the wall to examine each piece. Some arrangements address specific aspects of the form within the photograph. In the corner a man dives off a cliff into a pool below. In free fall, his body is erect, his arms hang casually against his sides, and his toes point straight outward. The canvases intend to enhance the verticality of the male subject, alluding to his descent into the water below. In one instance the support is a bit cliché, a cruciform supporting an image of a cemetery. “I don’t see a problem with that. Photographs of cemeteries are sort of cliché too.” Such a comment suggests the artist willfully intended a bit of subtle wit.
The images Hull has chosen for her show are elegant, ranging from somber landscapes to playful images of children and dogs playing. Her body of work has been influenced by the work of French photographer Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), who spent his career photographing friends and family. “They’re full of life and exuberant,” Hull adds.
Having studied some of his photographs through her painting earlier in her career, Hull draws similar influence through subject matter – capturing places she has been and images of friends. They are sensitive, not sentimental. They possess a sense of place that defies a sense of time. As a body of work, they allude to a sensation, a common story without beginning or end that all can relate to. “I don’t necessarily have a specific story in mind when I’m putting together a show; it’s more of an intuitive response to indicate a mood.”