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United Altered States

Recent work by Loretta Young-Gautier at Phototroph

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Elaine Bean, owner of Colorado Springs' only gallery dedicated exclusively to fine art photography, operates in what military planners might call a target-rich environment.

For Springs gallery-goers, fine photography is terra incognita, so Bean's free to mount whatever shows seem appropriate, affordable and aesthetically pleasing.

This month's exhibition consists of black-and-white photographs by Loretta Young-Gautier, titled Altered States. The title's apt enough -- all of the 15 gelatin-silver prints are not so much photographs as images constructed from photographs.

For Young-Gautier, unaltered photographs are raw material, the building blocks that she uses to create beautiful, eerily resonant works of art. Take, for example, "Pegasus," one of several works that explore the myth of the winged horse. A massive Clydesdale seems to trot lightly across the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, a ghostly and beautiful presence. I asked Young-Gautier when and where she had taken the photographs that she used and altered to construct the piece; she didn't remember. To her, the original images are unimportant; you might as well ask a painter where he bought each tube of paint in her paint box.

At its best, her work has a luminous, unworldly and deeply strange quality. The images are precise, orderly, logical and impossible. Look at "Lunar Study." Quiet and somber, it's the soothing interior of a Victorian library. Leather-bound volumes are carefully arrayed in wooden shelves; in an adjacent room, a famille rose porcelain bowl relieves the spare outlines of a table. But look -- the shelves disappear into gloom, there's no ceiling, just a gibbous moon in a cloudy night sky. And look down -- the library floor is rippling sand, with a single row of footprints ending at the bookcase.

Young-Gautier says that she wants "to create, often through an incongruous juxtaposition, an alternate vision." And by pairing the solidity of books in a library with the flux and change suggested by the moon and a beach, she's done just that. It's a dark and melancholy image, full of fin de sicle yearning for the vanished past. Is this Alexandria's great library, looted and burned 20 centuries ago?

If Young-Gautier's work has a single theme, it's that of time's arrow, moving forward, eradicating memory and meaning, freeing us to reinvent the past. "Dining Alfresco," hung next to "Lunar Study," is a perfectly straightforward photograph of a dining room in a stately home, nothing amiss or out of place, except for the floor, covered with a silvery sheet of water.

Young-Gautier doesn't use digital image processing. According to Elaine Bean, "[by] employing multiple exposures, negative sandwiching, combination printing, and other ... techniques, Young-Gautier creates images in both the camera and the darkroom." It's rigorous, old-fashioned and difficult, but the end result is worth it.

Currently, Young-Gautier is the associate director at the Camera Obscura Gallery in Denver, long the Rocky Mountain Region's premier photography gallery. She's lived and worked in Colorado for many years, and has experimented with multiple images since the early 1980s. Like last month's featured Phototroph artist, Carol Dass, she blends technical mastery with a mature artistic vision.

Twenty years ago, you could have walked into Camera Obscura and picked up great photographs for a few hundred bucks apiece. Anyone who bought anything from Hal Gould's shop in those days -- works by O. Winston Link, Brett Weston, Tina Modotti, Laura Gilpin -- has cause to gloat today.

I suspect that, in 20 years, we'll be thinking the same way about Phototroph. "Ah, remember those halcyon days at the turn of the century when you could buy great pieces by Dass and Young-Gautier and God knows who else for a few hundred bucks ... I coulda, I shoulda ... damn!"

Most of the images (all of which are limited to 15 prints) are for sale, at prices ranging from $525 to $700. So don't say, 20 years hence, that you weren't warned.

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