Splashes of expressionism,
Tacoma News Tribune - May 8th, 1994
Splashes of expressionism, Shelly Corbetts colorful, sensual photographs of nudes in water evoke a sense of primal vitality in Commencement Gallery display
If youre a painter, your medium is paint. If youre a photographer, your medium if film. If youre Shelly Corbett, your medium is water.
Corbett is a Seattle photographer who has found a way of interjecting a canvas between her camera and her subject. Her show at Tacomas Commencement Gallery is a series of nudes, artfully arranged and posed amid swatches of bright color and intriguing light.
But these are no ordinary nudes. Corbett films her subjects underwater, using a slow shutter speed to obscure the images; she blows up prints of the photos to 20 by 30 inches to give them a grainy quality.
In more conventional terms, you could say the water acts as a rather elaborate and unwieldy filter, giving the artist an opportunity to explore distortion between her camera and her subject.
But in these shots the water is more than that. Rather than letting it function merely as a filter, she uses the water itself as a sloshy liquid canvas, exploiting bubbles, light and the models movement as textures to be explored with the camera lens. Water both frames the figures in the work and becomes itself part of the subject. Slashes of texture and color found in the water and picked up by the lens give these photos something of an abstract expressionist sensibility. Light refracting from these distortions or tears in the medium and primal life. Water, after all, is thought to be the nurturer of life.
The light accentuates and exaggerates curves of the bodies, and the water makes the texture of flesh glow fresh with health. The models — male and female — are described by the artist as her friends, and Corbett captured her images while they floated beneath the water and slowly moved.
They look as if they are sealed in an alien landscape, serene and unaware they are being observed like organisms under glass. In a sense they are insects of their surroundings as for their own corporeal forms.
In one photo, Suppression of Guilt, the surface of the water, caught in the background behind the models head, is a rushing dark cloud of movement. It looks like time itself has accelerated behind her, racing at a thousand miles an hour.
But in the foreground the woman is suspended, setting up a tension between time and movement that gives the image resonance. The bubbles in the background, and the cracks of color that follows swirls of movement in the water, are like tears in the canvas, as if the suspension in which the people float is being ripped apart.
Corbett didnt just send her friend into the pool to cavort while she whipped out her camera. Interestingly, these photos have the feel of portraits carefully planned and arranged. But it seems like she has stumbled across these people in their own wild, natural and bizarre habitats.
Floating in and around the people, Corbet has introduced bolts of bright fabric — reds, blues, purples, yellows — and, in some of the shots bunches of flowers. As with the people, the water softens the colors, and their splashes across the images seem more reflection of color that something with physical form.
As for the people themselves, they look peaceful and blissfully unaware of the world around them. Or for that matter, that there might even be a world beyond their immediate watery environment. Some of the shots feature lone figures; others couples interacting or playing.
The images are erotically charged without being sexual. The cameras focus is on landscape here, and people as part of that landscape. As a window on these artificially constructed scenes, the photographer is more explorer than voyeur. These bodies in their strange underwater environments seem alien and familiar at the same time.
— Douglas McLennan