An exhibition of Debra Van Swearingen's photography is currently being held at the Norman Rail Depot (200 S. Jones Ave.), and it will continue through March 18. I came to this show late ? and I urge others not to make the same mistake. Van Swearingen has once again produced an impressive and beautiful show.

What has struck me most powerfully in this show is what a spot-on eye the artist has. In some ways this gift ? a good eye ? is almost more important to a photographer than to a painter. The camera can be a merciless vehicle through which to filter an image; any compositional flaws, uninspired subjects, or slips in technique can be cruelly evident in a photograph. Van Swearingen choice of subject, brilliance of compositional organization, together with her already sophisticated technical fluency, reinforce her visual gifts.

Just looking at a few of the most striking of the artist's pieces demonstrates these points. The black -- white photograph, "And the Band Played On," taken in Bath, England, is a perfect composition: Centered, balanced (trees and bushes on both sides of the pavilion), and evocatively nostalgic by Van Swearingen's mastery of black and white techniques in photography. (It is also a gicl?e, but more on that later.)

Another work, "Franklin Farm," is just exquisite by virtue of the placement of the magnificent tree at the center of the composition. In fact, the tree trunk is just slightly off-center; it is the wide spread of its generous branches almost to the edge of the photograph, that makes it seem so perfectly centered. I found that the horizontal shape of the image ? along with the well-chosen wooden frame ? added to the overall visual satisfaction of this photograph.

The technique behind "Franklin Farm" is also revealing of modern photography's complexity. The image was initially a negative. Van Swearingen then scanned the image into her computer, where she was able to enlarge it. Then, using archival ink, she printed it on canvas. (This striking photograph was awarded second place in the black and white category of the Norman Parks Foundation Tree Photo Contest in 2006.)

The lush "Tribute," a more complicated composition which the artist has resolved extremely well, uses another photographic technique. This is an infrared silver gelatin print on fiber paper. The silver gelatin is a way of taking a negative, and developing and printing it on archival quality fiber paper with archival ink. The infrared film increases the soft tonal coloration of the mostly black and white picture. Because the subject of this tender photograph is her musical grandparents, she has added color to the rose lying across the musical score.

Van Swearingen's "Preservation Hall" is from a trip she made to New Orleans just two months before Katrina hit. It is a digital image printed on archival paper and inks. And it is a gicl?e.

Normally, I am rather dismissive of gicl?es in the art market. I think that people should spend their money on an original piece of art, made by the hand of the artist. I still support this position as it relates to paintings or graphic works.

But I am slowly beginning to re-think this decision when it comes to photography. Isn't a gicl?e just another way of printing a photograph of a photograph? I asked Van Swearingen what she thought of this issue with regard to her photography. She surprised me with her information. Basically, she told me, if you photograph with a digital camera, or scan a negative into a computer, the only way to produce a print is to make it a gicl?e. In photography, this process is done by using high quality archival papers and inks.

The only other way you could get an image would be by making a negative, and going through the whole process again. Here, the question is "Why?" Surely the elimination of one step is an attractive option for the photographer. (Perversely, the creation of a negative from a digitized or scanned image is something that Van Swearingen is actually curious to try.)

For more information about this exhibition or about the artist, you can call the Norman Depot at 307-9320.

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