By TONY EVANS
For the Express
Wood River Valley photographer Barbara J. Kline has been making photographic montages since long before the advent of digital computing. Her old-fashioned darkroom is hung with dozens of ribbons that she has been awarded at arts festivals across the country since the early 1980s. This year will mark her 20th at the Sun Valley Arts Festival, which takes place next weekend, Aug. 11 to 13.
Although many montage artists have moved into the digital darkroom, Kline still keeps hundreds of rolls of discontinued Kodak infrared film in her freezer for future projects. She works from sketches based on medium format photographic images she shoots herself, cutting her dodging tools by hand, and toiling away in the dark to blend the images seamlessly together in a darkroom in her Heatherlands home.
"I'm definitely not mass producing anything here," she said. "The originals are one-of-a-kind."
One of her well-known images, "Cathedral Doors," was chosen to grace the cover of Alice Walker's autobiographical story, "The Same River Twice." She has shown her work at numerous shows around the country, including the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair last week in Washington and the prestigious Cherry Creek Show in Denver, Colo. over the Fourth of July. As popular as her work has been, she admits that a great deal of emphasis is now on the ease and agility of digital image making. "I realize a lot of great work is done on computers," she said. "But I don't own one, and I am so comfortable working in the darkroom I couldn't imagine using one."
After studying photography at Daytona Beach Community College, Kline worked for the renowned multiple-image artist Jerry Uelsmann, who continued a surrealist path begun by American artist Man Ray in the early 20th century.
"Jerry was a kind person with a good attitude on life and on art," said Kline. "He was also one of the pioneers in the use of photography as more than a representational art form. Ansel Adams and other well-known photographers would sometimes call his office on the telephone."
In addition to the kind of associations which can inspire a young artist, Kline was also offered unfettered use of Uelsmann's darkroom while he was away, as well as a generous supply of photographic paper. She began conjuring dreamscapes that blended architectural images with scenes from the natural environment. "It's important for me that art open a dialogue between the artwork and the audience. I use photographs to create something rather than just look at something."
Her early work, shot with ghostly infrared film, depicts porpoises swimming through picnics and living rooms with lily pond floors. The interior of a chapel with stained glass windows gives way to a waterfall where one expects the pews to be. Everywhere the symbolism of doors and windows, stairways and colonnades gives way to seascapes, trees and sky. The effect is one of surprise and delight. Her artist's statement reads, "The multiple image printing process enables me to expand on the single photograph, creating an entirely new idea and environment. The renewed compositions reveal a visual poetry that excites within the viewer their own feelings of regarding personal memories and experiences."
"There was real mystique to what we were doing in the early years because no one knew how it was done," said Kline. "Now I am asked all the time why I don't work on Adobe Photoshop. This is the same thing the landscape painters were asked by photographers at one time...'Hey Matisse, why are you standing out in the sun all day. Just use a camera'"
Recently Kline has begun painting her montages with the same oil paints used in the 1930s before the advent of color photography. Rather than going digital she has imposed a more historic technique on her work. "At the art shows now, people will say 'those are the same paints that my grandmother used to use.' I really have learned a lot about color by using the paints."
Kline's current "Book Series" depicts Blarney Castle in Ireland emerging along with a copse of trees from an opened book. Idaho cows are walking from the pages of another. It is as though the literary genius of Kline's dream world is finally being given its due. The brush strokes are thickest on her latest work, further blending the fine arts of painting and photography. Perhaps one day, rather than buying a computer, she will find herself standing out in the sun painting away like Matisse once did.