In these powerful black-and-white nature photographs, Joseph Donovan employs techniques derived from landscape painting to enhance the viewer’s feeling of looking into, rather than merely at, the spaces he documents. In the process, he adds a further dimension of time and yearning to the crystal-clear deep focus that has become his trademark. With highly evocative titles such as “Tell Me No Lies,” “Together,” and “On the Hill, a Palace,” Donovan seeks to unlock a train of association in the viewer’s mind and to lead him or her further into the visionary worlds these images reveal. For example, in “Together,” a gnarled tree stands guard over an outcropping of rock. The hills in the background, sheathed in a milky white layer of mist, provide ideal contrast for the heightened presence of the intensely variegated surfaces of leaf, bark, lichen, and rock. What a fascinating couple these two make — of course, they are “Together.”
After collecting his images in such locations as rural Northern California, Donovan sequesters himself in his studio in Sunfish Lake, Minnesota. There, with only pine trees, wild birds, and the occasional deer for company, he performs the Photoshop alchemy that takes these images across the threshold of ordinary accuracy and into the higher dimension of assisted visual interest. It’s a painstaking process. As Donovan puts it, “I want the final print to feel the force of what I saw, which means that every detail matters.” Looking at the incredibly vivid and intricate surfaces presented by such gorgeous large-format prints as the rain-soaked “Valley Elders,” it’s easy to get lost in dreamlike contemplation. Close attention to virtually every square inch turns up some extra nuance to see and feel.
Donovan, who has trained with some of America’s most prominent master photographers, spent much of his early career in commercial photography documenting golf courses and real estate developments. After the death of his beloved wife, he drifted for a time, lost in grief and unable to maintain his enthusiasm for the conventional routine of photographic illustration. A chance encounter with the writings of Celtic philosopher and environmental mystic John O’Donohue spun him off in a new direction and gave him the sense of personal mission that drives his current work. This show at wall space is Donovan’s first solo exhibition since discovering a new creative vein, and the results are very encouraging. His combination of reportorial directness and fanatic, super-intense digital optimization does not seem forced in the least. On the contrary, these pictures sing with the easy familiarity and grace of a practiced country choir. Whether it’s the exposed root system of a giant, cliff-hanging tree, as in “On the Hill, A Palace,” or the glowing surface of an open path glimpsed from within shade in “Tell Me No Lies,” each of these images etches a tangible sensation of nature’s mystery and beauty on the mind’s eye.