Lynn Geesaman is known throughout the United States and western Europe for her gorgeous photographs of gardens. The North Dakota Museum of Art has mounted this self-taught photographer’s first retrospective, slated to open at the Museum in Grand Forks on Tuesday, June 26, from 6 – 8 pm.
Walking into the galleries, the viewer is struck by how much the color photographs look like paintings, and how much the black and white photos look like old master prints. This was Geesaman’s intention, as she was never interested in documenting reality. Her goal was to make photographs that stepped further and further away from the literal. Formal gardens of the Western tradition became her ostensible subject matter, but she ultimately zeroed in on the margin between artifice and nature.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1938, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1960 with a degree in mathematics and physics. Her first job was as an experimental physicist at the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. While in college, she became interested in photography. First, however, she married and moved with her husband Donald Geesaman and their daughters to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It was here that the nature of her laboratory switched from physics to the photo darkroom.
She first taught herself to work with black and white film. Her studies in math and physics schooled her to instinctively organize pictorial space through geometric principles, especially the Cartesian coordinate system.
Her black and white garden explorations began with topiary, as did the English garden itself. With a dearth of plant choices on the British Isles, the English sought beauty in the geometric formations of turf and topiary rather than in movement and color, which were the embodiment of North American gardens. Early in the eighteenth century, tastes shifted and the English parkland, or landscape gardens such as Versailles, emerged to replace the formal French Baroque gardens of the previous century. Geesaman inadvertently exposed this history one photograph at a time.
In her black-and-white photographs, Geesaman strove for three-dimensionality through chiaroscuro, pictorial representation that focused on light and shade. It was Geesaman’s response to Pennsylvania’s Bernheim Arboretum in 1992 that led her into color. She found that particular landscape unsuitable to her black-and-white aesthetic. Challenged, she took up color film and taught herself chromogenic printing—pushing the boundaries of this process. As her color work progressed, it became more and more abstract; her colors were more surreal, more imagined, and closer to painting than traditional color photography.
In 2007 she took her last black-and-white photographs, and in 2009 her last color.
Sunday, September 9 at 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm
North Dakota Museum of Art 261 Centennial Drive, Stop 7305
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