Given enough pixels, digital photography can produce a vision of reality so crisp that it approaches the unreal. At first glimpse, such hyper-naturalism seems to be the goal of photographer Anne Rowland’s current show, simply titled “Landscapes.’’ The two pieces the viewer encounters upon entering the Hemphill gallery are views of nature so large and literal that they initially feel both genuine and overwhelming.
But look more closely at “View on Snake Hill Road, Middleburg,’’ a wall-mounted inkjet print that’s taller than the average human. Impeccably focused twigs border leaves that are sort of fuzzy, and the depth of field varies from sector to sector. It turns out that Rowland’s photography is actually a form of photo collage. Although the fragmentation is teasingly slight, these seemingly honest images are, in fact, untrustworthy.
Working primarily in western Loudoun County, not far from her childhood home in Great Falls, Rowland began by photographing simple rural scenes. The subjects are pretty, and pretty mundane: trees, shrubs, fields, ponds, clouds and so on, enlivened by the occasional car or goat. But each single picture combines multiple close-ups. The photographer assembles the individual frames — up to 350 for a single finished picture — with the help of a programmable camera mount, GigaPan, originally designed for the Mars rovers.
Some of the resulting pictures are choppier than others. The divisions between the segments are most noticeable in “View Northeast From the Intersection of St. Louis Road and Foxcroft Road, Middleburg,’’ which recalls the sort of multi-Polaroid portraits made in the pre-digital dark ages. (One well-known example is the cover of Talking Heads’ “More Songs About Buildings & Food.’’) The majority of the photos, however, look seamless from a reasonable distance. Seeing how the pieces fit together, or don’t quite, usually requires close inspection. The most visible sign of the artist’s presence is the shadow of her tripod and compact Leica digital camera, which is apparent in several of the pictures.
The individual frames are not always shot from exactly the same spot, so the finished work may combine multiple perspectives on an identical scene. This is not a new technique; you can see it in the “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals’’ exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art. But where classical landscape painters combined several vantage points to contrive a “perfect’’ view that was impossible in real life, Rowland seeks imperfection. The tiny glitches in her work mock digital photography’s precision.
In her statement about the show, Rowland writes that she first hit upon her method to achieve “extremely sharp’’ images. But assembling the close-ups into larger pictures results in mismatches and distortions. The photographer specifies that these “mistakes’’ — her word — “are all about, and mimic, vision and observation, optics and looking.’’
If that explanation sounds a little too art-schooled, here’s another one: Rowland’s approach introduces chance into a process that otherwise could seem overly mechanical. Composer (and sometime visual artist) John Cage used the “I Ching’’ to surrender partial control over his music. Rowland does something similar with the GigaPan, which yields flaws even as it eases the process of turning hundreds of close-ups into a single mega-landscape.
Yet the landscape is what dominates, even in such photos as “Old Bittersweet Tangle, Glenmeade, Bluemont,’’ a foliage close-up that flirts with abstraction. Step far enough back, and the digital defects vanish. And, since the pieces are so big, they’re easily read from a distance. That means the “mistakes’’ don’t dominate. If Rowland’s goal is to critique “vision and observation,’’ she may need to cede even more power to happenstance.