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The beauty of industry: Simon Coyle’s Beach Area.

Here, There, and Everywhere
By David Brickman

Houston: An exhibition of night and low-light photography by Simon Coyle and Vasko Milosevski
The Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer, through July 31

You can never guess what the Internet will lead to. I’m sure, for example, that when RPI Chapel + Cultural Center director J. Eric Smith began an electronic correspondence nearly a decade ago with Belfast, Northern Ireland-based teenager Simon Coyle, neither had any idea that the two would first meet face-to-face in 2003 in Troy at an exhibition of Coyle’s photographs of Toronto (titled Houston).

But Coyle did emigrate to Canada, Smith did get the director’s job at the C+CC last fall, and the show, a collaboration with Toronto native Vasko Milosevski, is the reality that brought the two old friends together in physical time and space.

The magic of the unseen, questions of location and a homespun sense of wonder are among the issues explored in Houston, the title of which goes unexplained by the artists. Coyle and Milosevski use the same camera and techniques, and photograph some of the same subjects, but they do not collaborate on individual pieces or share authorship.

Each has contributed nine pieces to this carefully crafted display. The two artists’ works are presented together but not intermingled; they are all color photographs (although one appears to be pure black-and-white), 15 inches square, matted and framed the same. Yet it is possible to discern stylistic differences between the two as they aim their shared camera at various industrial and waterfront scenes in Toronto, Lewiston and Hamilton, Ontario, after dark.

Night photography has a long tradition, and this work fits right into it. Using color film after sunset, especially with a mix of natural and artificial light, will always result in unforeseen color shifts. The combination of films balanced for daylight with light sources of a different temperature, or vice versa, in conjunction with very long exposures, can make a sky glow pink or green, a window glow orange, a building softly glow cool blue.

These are some of the phenomena visible here, in unmanipulated light-jet prints from conventional negatives; there are also effects common to most low-light photographs, such as blurring, ghosting and shallow depth of field that result from long exposures or wide-open apertures. All of which gives the work a certain classic look, almost nostalgic in flavor.

Yet the subject matter both photographers choose—factories, highway overpasses, commercial docks and the like—are distinctly modern. Which brings us to my theory as to why the show is called Houston: These pictures could very well have been taken in Texas rather than Canada—or in New England, California, France or almost anywhere else. The pictures are not about the place, they are about the way the place looks at night with a certain film, exposure and output. They are about the act of seeing and the joy of discovery.

Coyle appears to be the more emotional of the two. There is a dark mystery and a sweetness to many of his pictures that reveals his soft sensibility. One, titled Steel Works (all 18 titles are pure, descriptive labels), has an almost impressionistic flavor, created by steam rushing up from smokestacks into the evening sky together with the lights of the factory complex reflected in the still water next to it. The whole picture is suffused with a lavender glow, giving it a palette that, were it a painting, would seem cloyingly sentimental.

Instead, because it is a photograph of a factory rather than, say, a fantasy in oils of some cheesy cottage, the color scheme becomes fascinating, even ironic.

Other Coyle photographs play up acid yellows and greens, or almost naturalistic soft blues after twilight, color functioning somewhat as an emotional barometer from work to work. His Beach Area print emphasizes a warm orange burnishing the texture of a tree trunk, which is subtly repeated in the branch-blurred sky above, then offset by the white glare of car lights on a metal railing.

Here, and in numerous other examples of Coyle’s images, the human is never far removed from the picture, though never actually visible. One senses that these not entirely unfriendly boats, steps, rails and roads are there to help us in our everyday pursuits—they just look a little different after dark.

Milosevski is more the analytical modernist, presenting numerous views of sinister-looking factories and bridges at night with strong geometric compositions. Though some have a film-noir aura, others are truly passionless, in a beautiful way.

Of those, the one I like best is titled Port Building 1, in which the square image is divided almost equally by the zigzagging edge of a corrugated-metal structure. The rest is just foggy sky, and all of it is a lovely metallic pewter shade—except where it is pierced by the yellow-orange light from inside a window. Here and in other pieces where he combines interior and exterior lighting, Milosevski suggests a human presence in these otherwise uninhabited—and seemingly uninhabitable—scenes. But it is as likely a dangerous one as a benign one.

Another Milosevski piece (also titled Beach Area, though it may be a different beach from Coyle’s) has a very satisfying edge, between a low, nondescript building and the sky beyond. Upon close inspection, the dark sky reads blue-indigo, while the flashing along the building’s roofline reflects a deep purple, creating a delicious tension at the juncture. This represents a very sophisticated color sense and shows how the photographer is pushing the limits of his chosen medium.

Coyle and Milosevski have provided an interesting opportunity to explore an area of photography that most of us don’t try, and to see how similar approaches to similar subjects will still produce important differences between two artists’ visions. Now that they’ve come all this way from Toronto, there’s the possibility they will return to shoot along some of Troy’s industrial pathways. Wonder if it’ll end up looking a bit like Houston?

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