Culture » Visual Arts

Master Manipulator

Robert Stivers' dark room alchemy at Phototroph



There's something wonderfully seductive about black-and-white photography. Perhaps it's because we're so bombarded with color images: movies, television, magazines, billboards, Las Vegas -- all in garish, supersaturated living color. Why, even if you're the kind of macho dude(tte) who drives around in a Hummer, chances are it's a bright banana yellow. Maybe that's why color photography conjures up all of the things that we hate and love about our culture -- its coarse materialism, its in-your-face brashness, its porn-star sensibilities.

Black-and-white, by contrast, is subtle, quiet, refined. Artists speak to us; they don't shout.

Santa Fe resident Robert Stivers, whose masterful works are on display this month at Phototroph Gallery, speaks warmly and eloquently. His photographs, many strongly influenced by the pictorialists of a century ago, are thoughtful, elegiac and memorable.

A professional dancer until he injured his back, Stivers began his career in photography by creating images of his fellow dancers. "Woman in a Small Room," for example, is simple, eloquent and mysterious. A nude woman poses before a window, crouching slightly, turned toward the camera. The proportions of the room are compressed, distorted. Was it taken in a funhouse? No matter; look at the subject. She has the lithe, supple body of a dancer, yet she's clearly a middle-aged woman. Poised between youth and old age yet full of strength and passion, she's a remarkable subject.

According to local photographer Elaine Bean, Stivers, who prints all of his own work, is a master of darkroom manipulation. Just how he achieves some of his effects is a mystery even to Bean. Consider the image that is clearly the star of the show: "Self-Portrait in Water." The photographer appears to be floating on his side in a straitjacket, his head pillowed on a circle of dark water, while around him the waters darken and recede. Bean finds it profoundly calm and comforting; to others, it might appear to be an image of death, or anguished solitude.

And look at some of Stivers' lovely, frankly pictorialist images -- "Columns," "Three O's," or "Spiral." Unfocused, atmospheric, they seem to belong to a different century, a different sensibility. But these strange and beautiful images are the product of Stivers' darkroom wizardry, morphing a photograph of a simple sphere into -- well, into something else entirely.

If I had to pick a favorite, I guess it'd be "Spiral," just a simple, satisfying, nearly abstract image of -- a shell? A single-celled organism? Something, hovering at the mysterious edge of perception and knowledge, it reminded me of an image, which, although virtually unknown, is clearly the single most important photograph of the 20th century. You've never seen it, although it was taken in 1952. And neither had I, until last week. It's a strange, unreadable image, incomprehensible to most laymen. It's Rosalind Franklin's X-ray photograph of a fragment of deoxyribonucleic acid -- a photograph without which Watson and Crick, by their own admission, never would have deduced the structure of DNA, the double helix, the secret of life itself.

Stivers is one of our country's best photographers, good enough that his work is in a score of major art museums. Let's hope that our very own Fine Arts Center is smart enough to plunk down a few bucks and add one of these remarkable pieces to their collection.

--John Hazlehurst

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