Though their subjects are decidedly contemporary, all 47 prints in John Shimon and Julie Lindemann’s exhibit at Wendy Cooper were made using 19th-century processes. Eric (Lunde) With Sun in His Ear, Whitelaw, WI, 2004 is a platinum-palladium print with a gum bichromate emulsion applied to add even darker tones to platinum’s characteristic velvet. The rich textures give the image the gravitas of an old formal portrait or carefully composed landscape: Shimon and Lindemann are inspired by the Photo-Secessionists, turn-of-the-century photographers who aimed to make consciously aesthetic work. Here the dense tree branches on the left are balanced by their shadows on a building to the right, but the human subject is weirdly placed at the bottom of the frame, cut off at the neck, smoking a cigarette while holding a cassette player. Unbalancing an otherwise stately composition, this figure reminds us of the mess and disruption formal portraits usually exclude.

Most of these pictures are contact prints from 8-by-10 or 12-by-20 view cameras, which take a while to set up–and the couple has found that spontaneous compositions sometimes devolve into overly schematic arrangements. But certain influences have helped “free” their work, Shimon says, such as outsider art and the anonymous photographs the two collect at thrift stores and estate sales. “A lot of our images have the feeling of a snapshot,” Lindemann says, “but we’re trying to take ownership of that randomness.” The disruptive effect of Lunde’s figure seems calculated, from his position at the bottom to the spot of sun on one ear, turning it nearly white. A musician, Lunde was making recordings of ambient sounds outdoors, and “that was the inspiration for having the sun in his ear,” Shimon says.

Lindemann and Shimon are natives of Manitowoc County who met as art students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1981. Music was an early inspiration for both, and in college they formed a band, Hollywood Autopsy, cutting an LP Lindemann calls “farmer punk.” At that time, partly influenced by Robert Frank, they took photographs of “whatever came across our path,” she says. In 1985, “a little inspired by the Farm Security Administration photographs,” they decided to document rural life in the small town of Saint Nazianz, Wisconsin. Though each had a camera, they would sometimes borrow each other’s–and often couldn’t tell who’d taken which picture. They began to work collaboratively, discussing the focus and composition of each shot, and settled in the city of Manitowoc in 1989.

In Natalie (Stoer) With Leopard Pants, Manitowoc, WI, 2003, which shows a woman standing before a blank wall, the contrast between the print’s antique tones and the subject’s casual attire and bland snapshot stare is striking. The unadorned rectilinearity of a closed, dilapidated refrigerator factory in Burying Modernism, Quay Street, Manitowoc, WI, 1998 makes it an equally unlikely subject for the photographers’ 19th-century process. The clash of different eras seems to be one of the artists’ themes; as they write in their statement, “the remnants of one generation–architecture, machines, self-perceptions–are left for the next to sort out.”

Shimon and Lindemann are inveterate collectors. In the 80s Shimon scavenged thrift shops for paintings, and the two now collect microcassette answering machines, fascinated by the messages that remain on the tapes. More than a decade ago they started buying aluminum Christmas trees, first manufactured in Manitowoc in 1959. (The two sometimes found such trees at estate sales for as little as a dollar, though they now go for $100 or more.) In 1993 they began exhibiting them like little forests in the storefront space of the warehouse building where they live and work. But the exhibits “started gaining a weird momentum,” and the trees changed “from being these abject things to something too nostalgic,” Lindemann says. They stopped displaying them after 1997, but in 2003 a New York editor suggested a book dedicated to these vestiges of a time that celebrated clean modernity. This Christmas Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree was a hot gift item, covered in the New York Times and on CBS.

There are 14 black-and-white images of these trees in the gallery’s back room, including two amazing daguerreotypes in which the tree seems to float in space. Star Brand Sparkler Pom-Pom Tree, Manitowoc, WI, 2004, an in-camera ambrotype, is equally delicate in its treatment of the tree’s fine aluminum needles. A film loop, Perfect Home Movie, runs nearby. Using obsolete standard eight-millimeter, Shimon and Lindemann filmed a tree and the light projector sold with it, designed to spray colors over the aluminum; in the course of a minute the tree changes from red to blue to green to yellow while its damaged rotating stand plays an off-key version of “Silent Night.” The shifting light is less kitschy than one might expect, glimmering exquisitely.

John Shimon and Julie Lindemann: Deep Dark and Around

Where: Wendy Cooper, 119 N. Peoria, #2D

When: Through January 29

Info: 312-455-1195