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Review: Engaging work by photographers Ruth Dusseault and Bryan Whitney, at Hagedorn

Ruth Dusseault: "Mermaid Theater Built into the Headspring of the Weekie Wachee River (est. 1947)" 2006 C-Print
Ruth Dusseault's "Specimen Museum at Everglades Wonder Gardens 3, Bonita Springs (est. 1936)"

Two shows currently on view at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery offer different takes on the loose theme of man and nature. Luminous large-scale photographs by New York-based Bryan Whitney feature telecommunications towers in various landscapes. And photos by Atlanta artist Ruth Dusseault explore our historically warped relationship with nature.

Whitney has previously made X-ray photographs of such subjects as flowers, soda cans, clothing and people that, in a way, also serve as structural studies (and easily translate into commercial and editorial work). His architectural images, printed in the negative, shift the focus to the structures’ more formal attributes, such as shape and construction, rather than function.

Bryan Whitney's "Ann Arbor" (2007)

For his current show, “infrastructures,” Whitney used a 4-by-5-inch camera to capture his subjects: skeletal, spindly radio, TV and cell phone towers in such settings as the sweeping plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, a beachy stretch in North Miami or the woods of New York state. The photos, dating from 2005 to 2009, are impeccably printed on rag paper, which heightens the velvety blacks and creamy whites and gives the works a textural immediacy. Printed in the negative, white puffy clouds become an ominous black, and the structures seem to glow against their backgrounds, lending them an otherworldly appearance.

Akin to the work of Düsseldorf artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, whom he cites as an influence, Whitney’s images are deadpan but not without personality. There’s a zigzagging Seussian one in Ann Arbor, a slender diamond in Nashville, an Eiffel Toweresque example in Magonia, Fla., and one in Dallas that looks like a lattice spaceship perched atop pylons. Like Towers of Babel reaching toward the heavens, these spindly structures keep us connected across vast distances, even as they remind us of how fragile these connections are.

Whitney's "Oklahoma" (2005)

Best known for her work documenting the Atlantic Station redevelopment, Dusseault has long been concerned with the urban landscape and our place in it. Where Whitney takes a more formalist approach to photography, paying rigorous attention to composition and technique, Dusseault uses it as a tool to convey her theses, with more emphasis on subjects and message. While her images are less visually compelling, her project has more depth.

In her 2006-08 series “Modern Nature,” on view here, Dusseault explores constructed experiences of nature that appeared in tourist attractions in Florida in the 1920s and ’30s, most of which are still in operation.

Dusseault's "Mermaid Theater Built Into the Headspring of the Weekie Wachee River (est. 1947)"

Many of the photos depict man’s exploitation of or attempts to control nature, such as a dining room carved from coral at the Coral Castle Museum in Miami. Several images are of the well-groomed grounds and elaborate topiaries at Cypress Gardens, where, in one, two Southern belles in hoop skirts stroll along a walkway, a quirky tradition at the attraction, which in 2011 was replaced by Legoland.

Other works have an almost somber quality, including a series of images taken at the Specimen Museum at Everglades Wonder Gardens, where shelves and display cases are crammed with animal skulls, taxidermy, giant tortoise shells and jars of unidentifiable specimens. Two images taken at the defunct Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum show a fading mural of the pre-drained Everglades teeming with flora and fauna.

Though the man-nature theme is territory well trodden by contemporary artists, Dusseault takes us back to an insidiously innocent time, when despoliation could be blamed on ignorance. But in our “enlightened” information age, has our disconnect from the natural world changed all that much?

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