Gregory Conniff goes digital, finds new exposures in nature

Landscape photographer Gregory Conniff’s artistic world once consisted solely of saw-toothed picket fences, tangled brush and deep, evocative shadows that appeared to lengthen the longer one looked at his black-and-white gelatin silver prints. It was imagery filled with nuanced and subtle emotion, void of human occupancy, yet alive with an untold vibrancy.

Gregory Conniff's Watermarks series features color images, a shift for the photographer.
Gregory Conniff’s ‘Watermarks’ series features color images, a shift for the photographer.

A challenge from the curators at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), located in West Bend, recently changed Conniff’s way of looking at nature. Armed with a high-definition digital camera and tasked with taking color photos rather than black-and-white shots, the Madison attorney-turned-photographer took a closer look at images once seen only through a monochromatic lens. What he found has given his natural imagery even greater detail and dimension, and taken his work in new, expressive directions.

Watermarks, MOWA’s exhibit of 43 photographs by Conniff that opened April 9, displays his newly evolving and carefully articulated vision. It’s a vision, the photographer says, that holds as much promise for the viewers as for the artist himself.

What made you want to become a photographer?

I’ve had a darkroom since I was 13. I photographed for all the usual publications in schools and then never stopped. One appeal of photography for me is its speed of capture and its extended length for contemplation of results, the way a picture does — or doesn’t — age.

How did you find your way to Madison and what made you give up practicing law?

I grew up in New Jersey, and while I found myself in Wisconsin many decades ago, I am still from New Jersey. This allows me to appreciate both the order and beauty of the Wisconsin rural landscape and to feel familiar with the state’s exploration of the sort of political and economic geography I grew up with. In the late 19th century, painter George Innes studied the rural New Jersey landscape that gradually became Sopranos country (and the territory of my youth). Innes would have recognized the Wisconsin I saw upon my arrival here. Tony Soprano would be comfortable with how the state is changing.

During the 1970s I did a number of things, one of which was practicing law, another of which was making photographs. I found that I was a better self when I was making pictures and so restricted my professional life to photography around 1978 when I felt my images were at least as good as the worst of what I saw on exhibition.

Why landscape photography?

I like working outdoors and am not suited for sitting at a desk. The vernacular American landscape has been and still is my territory, but its evolution in my mind has been through an increased focus on the simple fact of beauty and our need for its nourishment. The essence of my thinking is that “it matters how things look.”

What caused you to take up MOWA’s challenge and change your style?

Apparently I’m a sucker for some thrown gauntlets. What I’ve learned over the past year and a half is how much more there is to see in my immediate world and how the character of my tools has enlarged the range and complexity of what I can learn to see.

How difficult was it for you to make the change after decades of black-and-white work?

I jumped into the challenge from the museum wild and blind, hoping that light would fall on the world in a way that was new to me. My biggest hurdles were learning to use new equipment of radically different character, learning new software to meet the demands of drastically increased output, and learning where my subject lay and how to trust it. I ended up with three bodies of work, one of which continues under the radar, another of which wasn’t news, and the third of which exploded and is hanging now in West Bend. I wish I lived closer to the show, because the pictures are so fresh that I’ve just begun to learn what they contain.

The Watermarks series is one of three that Conniff created after MOWA's challenge.
The ‘Watermarks’ series is one of three bodies of work that Conniff created after MOWA’s challenge.

Tell me about the current exhibition.

The pictures that make up Watermarks, while coherent and organized, are so new to me that I have no words to break them down into components. I count this as a mercy.

This show went up wet. I did a 180° turn and am traveling a road with no signage and indistinct margins. I’m not even sure I’m on a road. The show is also an installation — no labels, just one thing and meant for lingering immersion. It would be great if I could talk around Watermarks in such a way that a reader would want to dive in, but I can’t.

In general, what does an artist’s work say about him or her? What does your work say about you?

When an artist’s work feels inevitable — its ideas shaped into fact without obvious effort or ego — I trust that I’m in the presence of someone who cares about both the piece and its audience. I give over my initial attention with gratitude. I say “Of course,” and then I look and look.

I like work that lasts, that slowly releases new understandings as the viewer ages and changes alongside the work. I respect work that isn’t afraid to be both beautiful and confounding. The odd couple of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Robert Irwin has enlarged my world with each artist’s quiet insistent immediacy and inherent joy. They happen to be on my mind right now for different reasons, but the company of visually generous artists is large, diverse, and extends back to the walls at Lascaux.

What would you like viewers to take away from your MOWA exhibition?

If a viewer leaves the show with the thought that daily life contains wonders that will reveal themselves to sufficient attention, then Watermarks will have done its job. If the viewer also feels a desire to experience the show again, then it’s possible to think that what I’ve made is art.

Landscape photographer Gregory Conniff’s Watermarks is on display through June 19 at The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For more information, call 262-334-9638 or visit wisconsinart.org.