Peruvian Lilies #11, 2004

Review: Orgies of Blossoms


Orgies of Blossoms

by Rick Deragon

Huntington Witherill's digital images transport viewers to a surreal world. 

If Vermeer made pictures of flowers like Georgia O'Keefe the results would be Huntington Witherill's new digital photographs at the Ansel Adams Gallery on Cannery Row. Witherill has eschewed the glossy surfaces and breathless pale tones of his past, not to mention his treatment of nature as a series of precious details; instead, he has created a body of work radiating and pulsing with miniscule highlights dancing over folds of flowers that seem to be seen for the first glorious time. Talk about sense of wonder. 

Witherill's digital photographic technique paints an image as if each pixel had become swollen with pigment and engaged in a wrestling match with all neighboring pixels until, orgiastic, they explode onto the paper. Vermeer's little white dots and millions of similar tinted friends rush across the surface defining the stems, curves, hollows, and fluttering petal ends of flowers. So transfixing is this dance of organic color bits, it really doesn't matter that the subject is roses, or any other flower. That the photographer is obviously connecting intimately with the flower forms is purely a bonus. Good thing for us. 

One of the bugaboos of digital processing has been the amount of detail that can be achieved. Conventional gelatin silver or even platinum processes were sharper and capable of fixing in time hyper details the eye misses. But improved technology has provided the photographer with more and more pixels per square inch, allowing the printing ink to define with greater precision fine details of a subject. In Witherill's new work, the pixel issue is silenced; his images, every square inch, are comprised of tiny little marks as if applied with the tip of a delicate brush; these bend and stretch in their pixelish way, defining form. There is no geometric regimentation to be found. 

Witherill starts with pictures he puts on files in Photoshop. Then the photographer distorts the flower image with, most likely, the glee of a creator on to something big. The results take the viewer on a voyage to worlds as varied as lunar landscapes and stalactite/stalagmite-filled cave interiors, dreamy undersea places and cauldrons of flower petal volcanoes. That all these places are really single flowers or clusters of blossoms is the joy and challenge of Witherill's new work. 

In the Photoshop universe, the photographer distorts things as if they were bars of taffy. In Dahlias #11, for example, the photographer's technique can be clearly seen. Imagine a dahlia in its blooming glory transported to a realm where anything is possible. The dahlia is pulled until it's a diaphanous veil, twisted until it seems to spiral and drift in watery wonder. 

In Calla Lilies #4, a similar undersea effect exists. The exaggerated horizontal format serves as a porthole to a primordial place full of floating poetry. The color ranges from muted blue-grays to tropical blasts of red and orange. In between, Witherill has fun concocting inner realities or more surface events. 

In Roses #11, pale grays plus the cauldron form established by severe flattening of the rosebud suggest the timelessness of geological occurrence. Dahlias #4, on the other hand, throbs with rich reds and whites as the petals pulse in an intravenous beat. 

His distortion of flower forms, and the mind's memory of nature's untampered perfection, work in concert to bring the work into the fantastic. Dare one say, surreal? As the eye meanders through petals and stems, marveling at the orchestrated colors defining them, one is pulled ever deeper into dreamland. 

Witherill's new photographs are Giclée prints, a term derived from the French for "nozzle" (gideur) and "to spray" (gicler). He uses an Epson Stylus Pro 7600 Printer with Ultrachrome inks. The fine art papers are warm, sumptuous surfaces for all those orgiastic pixel color points to live happily on. 

Like the fantastic voyage one experiences studying his new work, Witherill himself has ventured far from the gelatin silver finery of his past work. Instead of pictures capturing a fragment of nature, the same nature made so familiar by so many straight photographers, Witherill has embraced the new technique and run with it. He's run right into a new reality that he is able to define, unfettered by photography's past, but still full of his reverence for the natural source. 

Reprinted from Coast Weekly, February 6, 2003