Paradise is not usually imagined in black and white, but there is not much in the realm of the traditional in Michael Kirchoff’s “Sanctuary,” a nature photography exhibit currently on view at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Mass. This world-within-in-our-world is stark, beautiful and devoid of human life. Extremely wide shots, high-contrast lighting and subtle, off-kilter effects create a world that looks more like an alternate version of our Earth than traditional nature photography.
The gallery has a surprisingly intimate atmosphere; it lacks the airy white walls and high ceilings common in photography exhibits in favor of wood paneling and natural light. Kirchoff’s style is marked by texture, contrast and playing with light. The homey, warm setting of the gallery helps bring the landscapes down to earth. It allows the viewer to feel more absorbed in the naturalistic aura of the exhibit.
From a distance, some of the works in “Sanctuary” seem like they could be desktop backgrounds. The real magic comes when you look closer. A distinctive motif in “Sanctuary,” and throughout Kirchoff’s whole body of work, is the dark, textured effects on the borders of the pictures. They almost look like the frayed edges of an old Wild West “Wanted” poster. From up close, however, the viewer is drawn into the delicacy and intricacy of these effects. Sometimes they look like ink splotches, sometimes like torn paper and sometimes as if someone just spilled water on the edges.
For how natural and isolated the subjects of "Sanctuary" are, Kirchoff proves himself a master in carrying ordinary, though often striking landscapes into the surreal and the bizarre. Lens or sun flares might be planets. Trees are warped to look like anemones. All sense of scale is lost. But despite the grandness, the weirdness and the lack of companionship in this world, there is something comfortably human about Kirchoff’s "Sanctuary." There are no people in sight, but if you look closely there is evidence of human life: a long picket fence or worn dirt roads in the distance. The textural effects are not spilled water but evidence of a human hand.
Consider one of the photos of the exhibit, called “Victory Trailhead” for its setting, although it might as well have been taken anywhere. A lone tree sits on a hill, and the marbling, blurring effects on the photo add the faded impression of a vine crawling above the tree into the sky. If Kirchoff were Botticelli, one would expect Adam and Eve to be standing right in the center. But as usual, there are no people in the picture. Has humanity already been cast from this sanctuary? Or is it about to arrive? Kirchoff himself best described his own world as “a place that is as dark and mysterious as it is bright and hopeful.”
One notable feature of the “Sanctuary” series is that every picture has a literal name, like “Sunflower” or “Alabama Hills #1, Lone Pine CA.” It seems to intentionally ground the photographs in reality, even if some of them cross over to surreal. “Alabama Hills” is just as it claims to be, a series of hills and rocks across a broad depth of field in a wide landscape. Yet somehow, it doesn’t quite look like earth. The lens flares seem out of proportion with the landscape. At first glance, they look like clouds or objects in space. The picture could have been titled “1950s Space Exploration Movie Set,” but then the play with reality would have been lost. As Kirchoff explains, “Each image is a mysterious place, both real and unreal, captured from the safety of my own imagination.” Although each picture is of the natural world, open for all, viewing the exhibit feels like walking into something very private, as if the viewer is being let in on a secret.
Tucked away in the suburb of Winchester, the Griffin Museum is showcasing a vast dream world in a small room from Jan. 11 through March 4. Go to get lost, and consider, as Kirchoff asks: “If I needed to run in times of trouble or discontent, where would I go?"
Summary "Sanctuary" is a bold meditation on the meeting point between nature and humanity.