CULTURE- ART FEATURE- McGuffey melting: Jacobson's old-school transformations


When giant whales swim through the trees on the Downtown Mall, it can only mean one thing: the Festival of the Photograph is back in town. The next few weeks offer the rare opportunity for up-close exposure(!) to images made by some of the world's foremost photographers. The views are not always easy (if you like beautiful images of dismembered bodies, though, this is your year), but they're usually rewarding.

In addition to showcasing three "legacy photographers"— Mary Ellen Mark, James Nachtwey, and Joel-Peter Witkin— the Festival has organized several exhibitions to highlight accomplished photographers who are less well known. One of the most interesting (and one who doesn't require any steeling of the nerves) is Jeff Jacobson, whose show, "Melting Point," is on view in the McGuffey Art Center's first-floor hall gallery.

Jacobson's documentary photography has appeared since the 1970s in publications such as Time, Fortune, and The New York Times. But for this body of work, he takes a more open-ended, artistic approach, experimenting with color and scale, and playing with viewers' perceptions. Instead of relying on digital technology to achieve his complex layering and super-saturated colors, Jacobson creates each photograph in-camera. It's mind-boggling to realize none of these mysterious and evocative pieces has been retouched.

In almost every photograph, Jacobson offers the viewer two or more focal points, which compete with each other and coalesce to create a new impression. For instance, in "Pierre, Sough Dakota 2003," an image of a herd of buffalo seen through a polarized windshield is disrupted at its center by a single buffalo framed in the rearview mirror. The windshield's refracted light and the mirror's reflected light yield two completely different color palettes, making it seem as if the buffalo in the mirror were extracted from a different photograph taken on another day.

Jacobson creates visual jokes with some of his compositions, such as "Florence, Italy 1988," in which he treats the viewer to two views of Michelangelo's "David." Elsewhere he's somber, as in his stunning 9/11 piece, "Jersey City, New Jersey." 

Several of the exhibition's most compelling images, however, result from Jacobson's using his original reference points in the service of abstraction. For instance, the stair-top spaniel at the center of "New York City 2003," becomes subsumed in the geometric interplay of primary colors Jacobson produces with his innovative in-camera bag of tricks.

Jacobson's old-school powers of film transformation give digital photography a run for its dazzle.

Jeff Jacobson's exhibition, "Melting Point," is on display as part of the Festival of the Photograph through June 29 at the McGuffey Art Center. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.