Friday, September 4, 2009

In a Beautiful World

The first photograph that greets you at Nicole Morgenthau’s website is one of sheer exuberance: it’s a scene of quintessential Americana, and more specifically, of the wild, wild West, where there are wide open spaces and blue skies and amber waves of grain, where cowboys wander and trains rattle on tracks stretching for miles across the plains, and where you can’t help but kick up your heels and shout.

Though the motifs in Ms. Morgenthau’s work vary—Americana and the wild West here, tropical paradise there, everywhere an ephemeral glimpse into a moment—the photographs illustrate life experienced in the natural world with abundant joy.

These are images that make you feel happy just to look at them: a child lying in the brilliant green grass with her dog, a lime hanging on a tree in front of a coral-pink wall, a man with a smile so beautifully bright that you feel welcomed. In the images, a personality emerges: of one who is lively and curious, of one who will introduce you to the world as a beautiful place.

Ms. Morgenthau says that grew up in a not beautiful place, in the suburbs of New Jersey, where there wasn’t much that was visually stimulating. Craving a chance to see the world, she went West to college—and found what she was seeking. “You seek out what you want,” she told me.

What Ms. Morgenthau had always wanted was to create beautiful things, even as a tiny child, and so she started making art early: painting, drawing, sculpting. Now in her photography, she still seeks that beauty, whether it be found in a smile or in a scene outdoors. Her favorites among her work show people who are happy, vibrant with good energy, framed by (or maybe somehow interacting with) a beautiful landscape.

Sometimes it takes patience:
I love that high desert landscape, and I go there and hang out and wait for the good light. . . .you can’t count on good light. . . Fishing is a good metaphor. You can wait and wait and wait, and think it’s going to be perfect, and then the sun goes down, and it turns to muck. It helps to be patient.
In many of the pictures, there’s what I think of as a painterly effect in the use of intense, clean color, which gives a stronger voice to the image. Ms. Morgenthau says she tries to take a simple approach:
When things look cheesy. . . . it’s often because they are fake . . . . There’s enough beauty going on in the world without having to overdo it. I take advantage of beautiful vivid colors, like the lime tree and the red house in Mexico.
I used to shoot black and white in the days of film, but as clients demanded more color and we move to being more digital, you just have to be really careful about what you choose. If there is color, it has to be beautiful color.

I wondered whether Ms. Morgenthau sees the world differently than other people. Her response was that she doesn’t believe she does, but that she takes the time to look at what is there:
A lot of people don’t, and aren’t aware of their settings, they become aware only if it’s drop dead gorgeous and blasts them in the face.
This view of the tiny beautiful details that make up the world seeps into every aspect of her life:
We’re only here for a short time, and we take advantage of what’s around us, we’re open to different opportunities, not just visually, but when you’re more aware of your surroundings, you can’t not care about what’s going on around you. Being an artist, you have an opportunity to make change because of what you’re aware of and it’s really hard to ignore, the good and the bad.
And that truly is what art does for us, isn't it, that it wakes us up, it shows us different views of humanity and of the world, and it makes us think about what happens, and it makes us aware of ourselves, and it ignites all kinds of transformations, from the tiny ones that occur in our inner landscapes that become the great changes in our lives, and so that maybe we shift direction, and when enough of us shift in that way, the greater effect might be a change for the good in the world.

[photographs by Nicole Morgenthau.]

1 comment:

Nancy Ewart said...

Thanks for sharing this; I didn't know anything about the artist and I'm always glad to learn something new.