Excelling in the Field

A Washington Post article

Landscape Photographers at Kathleen Ewing Gallery by Ferdinand Protzman

Making color photographs of the American landscape seems easy. Every summer millions of us return from vacation with pictures of forests, fields, mountains and valleys. But when we get the photos back from the shop, the results are often disappointing. The colors are not quite right, what was a soft, ethereal light is pallid, and that sense of wonder at nature’s glory, that feeling of piety that inspired us to shoot the scene in the first place, has gone astray.

What makes the color photographs of Christopher Burkett and Jeanette Klute such a pleasure to see at Kathleen Ewing Gallery is that both artists have managed to corral the spiritual essence of America’s landscape, albeit in very different ways. Both set out to photograph the colorful miracles of nature, whether fallen leaves floating on a pond or wildflowers lifting their heads from the forest floor. Both succeeded admirably.

Klute was one of the pioneers of color photography. After studying photography and art, she got a job in Eastman Kodak’s visual research studio in Rochester, N.Y., in 1939. She eventually became the studio’s director before retiring in 1981. During those years, she became internationally known as a photographer, producing a large body of work and participating in exhibitions such as “All Color Photography,” organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950-51.

At Kodak, Klute, who still lives in Upstate New York, became an expert at a color photographic process called dye transfer, which is one of the most permanent and complex forms of color photo printmaking.

Dye transfer is also a very fickle process. While it produces rich, lasting colors, they can seem too intense and overblown. But in Klute’s hands the colors are so subtly and precisely blended that the photographs just sing. Her 1955 print “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” is a tone poem in shades of green and purple about the elegant woodland plant that flowers in the spring in North America’s woodlands. Prints such as “Apple Blossoms,” from around 1960, are also a tribute to Klute’s superb eye for composition and lighting.

“Many times when I first walk into the woods it seems like an impenetrable mass of greenness, but gradually as I become attuned to the spirit of the woods this greenness gives way to a miracle of individual colors and sensations,” Klute wrote in the foreword to her 1952 book “Woodland Portraits.”

Burkett also uses his masterly eye and remarkable printing skills to catch the divine beauty of nature untouched by man. “The purpose of my photography is to provide a brief, if somewhat veiled, glimpse into that clear and brilliant world of light and power,” Burkett wrote in his artist’s statement.

While a brother in a Christian order, Burkett, 46, became interested in photography as a way of expressing nature’s grace, light and beauty. In 1979, he dropped out of the order, married and began honing his skills as a photographer and learning about color reproduction by working for years as an offset printer specializing in four-color printing and laser scanning.

Accompanied by his wife, he also began taking long trips around the United States, photographing the countryside with 8-by-10-inch film. By the mid-1980’s, he was showing his work in galleries and museums and attracting international attention.

His Cibachrome photographs are lyrical, if perhaps less contemplative than Klute’s, and tend toward the spectacular. Because he works with a large-format camera, Burkett is able to blow up his prints to 30 by 40 inches without losing any detail. His best photographs, such as “Aspen Grove, Colorado, 1993,” or “Sunrise and Autumn Blueberries, Maine, 1994” have amazing color contrasts and seem almost like abstract, cosmological studies rather than painstakingly accurate depictions of the American landscape.