Many contemporary artists say they want their viewers to have a rich, immersive visual experience. But Karen Glaser's photographic images really make it so.
"I just fell in love with the springs," the Chicago-based photographer said during a walk through the gallery at Edison College in Fort Myers, where her large-scale color photographs are on view through Dec. 3. The exhibit is a traveling show called "The Mark of Water," organized by the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach.
Her images, produced on archival rag paper using an inkjet printer, are the result of years spent scuba diving and snorkeling in Florida's freshwater springs and slogging through waste-deep water in the Everglades. Their luminous beauty might make you want to break out your bathing suit and flippers, if not your hip waders.
Glaser's photographs from north and west Florida springs plunge gallery-goers into an intriguing liquid realm. Underwater pictures like "Turtle Hop at Catfish Sink" provide a fish-eye view of the world. The photograph offers a serene vision of life in a water hole in Manatee Springs State Park, located in Chiefland, west of Gainesville.
Light filters gently down through a mat of floating vegetation. Underwater branches carve the picture into horizontal zones, like a landscape. A turtle, heading upward, appears to be poised on a tree limb, as if it were a bird rather than a reptile. Momentarily, it's a peaceable kingdom down there, silent and still.
Another image from the same place, "Dust Storm in Catfish Sink," was taken near the mucky bottom, where everything is coated in brown mire. However, the watery zones above look agitated, as if a tornado is slamming through. You almost expect a cow to blow past your field of vision.
"But it's really just stuff suspended in duckweed," Glaser said, of creating the dust storm effect. The bits of moss and vegetation that look like they're being whirled in a giant cataclysm were simply floating above and around her. "I embrace the particulate matter," she noted, pointing out that her images have been described as messy, but in a good way. "The particulate matter is part of the scene."
When taking pictures below the surface, she primarily uses a Nikonos V camera, made by Nikon for underwater photography, and her images are recorded on film.
Yes, film. Glaser has yet to go digital under water. She likes the grainy quality of her negatives when they are enlarged and feels that her system works for her. All of her pictures are shot using natural light. The colors, she says, are true to her visual experience.
"It's real," she said. "That's the way the world is."
What you don't see in the pictures is the constant presence of a dive partner — often her husband, John Stranick. She swims with three cameras around her wrist, waiting for the perfect moment.
"I'm like a street shooter underwater. I'm looking for Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment.' I don't have a lot of time to do careful framing and metering. Things are swimming in front of me, coming in and out of the picture. I'm in a dynamic situation. It's quick, instinctive."
Once her film is developed, the negatives are scanned and become digital files that Glaser and an assistant review together and adjust on screen.
"I don't do much cropping," Glaser said, but she does use image-processing software to fine-tune her pictures. "It's mainly to get a good print, with contrast and tonal variations."
Almost half of the images in "The Mark of Water" were shot in South Florida, many in Collier County. Glaser was artist-in-residence at Big Cypress National Preserve in 2006-07 and Everglades National Park in 2008-09. Park naturalists and other swamp buddies helped her tramp through the glades with her cameras and gear.
A haunting landscape called "Fire in the Swamp #1" shows the immediate aftermath of a conflagration in the Big Cypress Preserve. Firefighters had just hosed down the area, and Glaser was allowed to get off a swamp buggy to take the picture, using a Hasselblad panoramic camera.
Smoke drifts and pools around the trees, looking almost like snow at ground level. In the background, though, tinges of red suggest the fire is not completely subdued.
One of the beauties of Glaser's photographs in or out of the water is the strangeness she wrests from reality. In "Big Cypress Pollen" and "Big Cypress at Big Cypress," the artist takes advantage of the way objects are magnified when seen through water to create oddly distorted forms and shifts in scale.
"Her work really challenges us to think about what we're actually seeing," said Ron Bishop, director of the Rauschenberg Gallery. Unlike some underwater photographers who aim to bring back crisp, precisely realized "trophy" images of exotic creatures, Glaser creates photographs that emphasize unusual viewpoints, spatial ambiguities and a feeling of disorientation amid the soupy mysteries of life below the surface.
THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT
It all started with a gift, Glaser says. In 1983, she was given a Minolta Weathermatic instamatic camera for her birthday. Not long out of graduate school, having received her M.F.A. in 1980 from Indiana University, she was making a living as a custom printer of black-and-white photographs.
Playing with her new equipment, she began to take underwater pictures of people in Chicago-area swimming pools. Soon, she became friends with one of the pool managers, who invited her to take a scuba diving class at the facility.
After becoming certified as a diver, Glaser was searching for new challenges and inexpensive places to practice her skills. Someone suggested she visit Crystal River in Florida to snorkel with the manatees.
She was entranced by the experience and began to photograph manatees, fascinated by their ungainly shapes. Throughout the 1990s, Glaser took black-and-white images of the creatures.
"I soon learned they were damaged goods," she said, referring to the scars and injuries inflicted on the creatures by boat propellers. Eventually, her images were collected in the book "Mysterious Manatees," published in 2003 by the University Press of Florida and the Center for American Places.
It was a natural progression from encountering the manatees to exploring the state's springs and grassy wetlands. Though the artist doesn't hit you over the head with it, there's a clear environmental subtext to her work.
"They're endangered ecosystems," she noted. "I work in endangered waters." And, she added, "I'm happy that something that is visually seductive also educates people" about the environment.
# # #
IF YOU GO
What: "The Mark of Water: Florida's Springs and Swamps," a traveling exhibition organized by the Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona State College, Florida
When: Monday — Friday 10 a.m. — 4 p.m. Monday — Friday
11 a.m. — 3 p.m. Saturday through Dec. 3
Where: Bob Rauschenberg Gallery, Edison College, 8099 College Parkway S.W., Fort Myers
Information: 239-489-9313 or bobrauschenberggallery.com