Lake Affect: Photographs by Othello Anderson

at City Gallery, through June 28

Barbara Crane: Still Lifes / Natures Mortes

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through May 23

Disciplined, carefully delimited approaches to nature photography yield a revelatory diversity in two exhibitions. Shooting in color, Othello Anderson has been recording a single view of Lake Michigan since 1980, leaning against the same tree at the Fullerton Avenue beach and photographing waves, clouds, storms, sunrises, and twilights in all seasons. Shooting in black and white, Barbara Crane has taken overhead shots of mice, birds, skeletons, sticks, and other items she’s found since 1987 near her cabin in southern Michigan, positioning them against a black velvet backdrop in her studio. Despite these restrictions and the artists’ adherence to traditional genres, Anderson’s landscapes and Crane’s still lifes are exercises in surprise. Has anyone else cataloged so avidly the spectrum of color and texture displayed by lake and sky? And who else has so carefully noted the luxuriant delicacy of a mouse pelt or bat wing?

For “Lake Affect” Anderson has propped up untitled 11-by-14-inch digital prints on narrow wooden shelves at City Gallery, in the old Water Tower. There are a total of 280 images, 4 per shelf and five rows of shelves in each of 14 groupings. The sequences offer no obvious narrative, diurnal or seasonal. Perhaps the vast range of atmospheric conditions overwhelmed any idea Anderson had of imposing a formalist grid on his inventory. Given all the recurring phenomena, “Lake Affect” defies useful sorting: layered bands of various colors reappear above and below the horizon, and the textured surfaces run the gamut of crusty ice, rippling waves, and sunbeams glinting on the water.

Though lightning strikes in the distance in a few shots and sheets of sparkling drops from breaking waves fill the frame in others, what’s most dramatic is the contrast between sky and lake. Anderson’s tree is close enough to the water that we never see joggers or bikers, though in some shots distant boats can be spotted. Scale is established by a line of offshore pylons, which might be encrusted in ice or ablaze with sunlight late on a summer day. If you count these black stumps or note slight variations in their alignment from photo to photo, you can see that Anderson occasionally zooms in or out slightly or changes his angle on the scene. Usually the horizon cuts the photograph in half, but not always.

As Anderson tracks Lake Michigan’s mood swings, his interest in the view is more emotional than meteorological. Nowhere does he cite the hour or date he took these pictures. But an easily overlooked statement–kept in a folder at the attendant’s desk–includes the line: “When looking at the water I enter into a voiceless, wordless, silent space that is a metaphysical state.” An art therapist, Anderson says he’s taken patients on field trips to Navy Pier simply to contemplate the lake. Perhaps the most meditative photograph in this collection is an anomalous, almost monochromatic light blue shot: since the becalmed lake and cloudless sky are the same color, the horizon nearly disappears. My favorite shot, though, is a study in turbulent melancholy–silvery black water and spectral white clouds–that evokes not only a black-and-white photograph but a filmmaker’s day-for-night effect.

While all of Anderson’s photographs are horizontal, Crane opts for a vertical format in most of her project, “Still Lifes / Natures Mortes,” represented by 55 photographs at the Chicago Cultural Center. Shooting 4-by-5-inch and 8-by-10-inch negatives, she makes gelatin silver prints, most of them 24 by 20 inches. Crane collected her subjects between the little towns of Coloma and Covert–though I wonder if she made an exception for Monkey Hand, 1999. The scale of some of these objects is distorted by her treatment: Crane enlarges them beyond life-size and frames them in uniform formats. The monkey paw appears just as tall as the dead mouse in a 1994 print, with its whiskers at the top of the frame and its tail curling at the bottom. In four prints from 1999, hair balls coughed up by Crane’s husband’s cat, Ashley, are on the same scale as the mouse and bird carcasses.

Despite their pristine detail, Crane’s studies of corpses, skeletons, and sticks may not strike a naturalist as useful. But her images resonate with other art. The masterful range of grays in her prints, created with the assistance of Ursula Sokolowska, is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s etchings, sometimes lauded as “photographic.” Her anguished monkey paw recalls an Albrecht Durer image of prayerful hands, and Georgia O’Keeffe comes to mind in Crane’s straight-on portraits of skulls, whose empty eye sockets glare menacingly. A white-breasted bird with its head demurely bowed and wings tucked elegantly at its sides looks like an art deco emblem of symmetry.

“Still Lifes / Natures Mortes” takes on a taxonomic character in the grid of 10-by-4-inch photographs, arrayed in two rows of ten, showing sticks. These resemble a startling range of objects, from leg bones to walking canes to hairpins–they look like anything but the living parts of a tree they once were. There’s a similar effect with Crane’s studies of Ashley’s hair balls. These offer the least compositional interest–and might trigger a gag reflex in some viewers–yet the intricate nests of myriad slender hairs are exquisite. As if to say that nothing in nature is unnatural, Crane even memorializes a used condom, which at first glance seems the wrinkly skin shed by a Michigan snake.