From the desert of New Mexico to the desert of Egypt, bursts of light flash through black squares on the walls of the American University in Cairo’s Photographic Gallery. This month, AUC hosts the first overseas exhibition of the photography of the late American photographer Walter Chappell (1925-2000), titled “Metaflora.”
“Metaflora” is subtitled “A series of electron images of plant life realized without a camera in total darkness.” The focus of the exhibit is mundane, living vegetal objects: an avocado, parsley, a daisy blossom among others. Yet the technique of electron photography (high voltage/high frequency electron imagery) shows the life energy of these freshly cut plants shining out with star-like intensity.
These pictures are a means to capture more than just the intricate, unseen energetic structure of living flora. Chappell’s development as an artist was closely linked to academic studies of other fine arts and encounters with Native American spiritual rituals at a young age.
Later on, he was influenced by the teachings of Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. He began exploring photography in the 1950s and through capturing the beauty of the natural world Chappell sought “a growing discovery of my inner being.”
Chappell was at the vanguard of a mid-century American fine art photography movement which, following in the techniques innovated by Alfred Stieglitz, sought to establish photography as an expressive art akin to painting and poetry. Other prominent members included Minor White and Ansel Adams. Chappell believed that photographic imagery could reflect deeper, spiritual truths about the world and ourselves.
The photographer spoke of something he called “camera vision” to describe his rapport with nature: “Camera vision operates as an intelligent function between the human eyes and the totality of understanding in a moment of active awareness. No camera is needed for this experience, only the keen sensibility of the human mind.”
Chappell’s images seek to present a fossil, an artifact of moments of perceiving. The objective behind the creation of a photograph is not to illustrate the power of photography. Such an approach hinders our direct experience of the world.
“The camera allows me to arrest my vision at that moment when my conscience intuitively experiences a reality most important for my awareness of life’s essential presence,” Chappell once explained.
The purpose of technical mastery and keen precision in developing images was to let the camera become an extension of natural eyesight. For Chappell, the photograph is an externalization of our minds’ ability to capture moments of beauty and truth in life.
The “Metaflora” series also aims to reveal the internal, unseen world of nature we are capable of perceiving, both with the mind’s eye aided by spiritual reflection and with the real eye aided by image-capturing technology.
Arresting yet dynamic, the electron images show energy itself, pulsating within the apparent mediocrity of ordinary objects. Simultaneously, each dynamic photo can be felt as a moment of stillness.
“What you’re seeing is the life force of the avocado. You’re seeing the energy of the avocado,” said Shems Friedlander, senior lecturer at the AUC department of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the Photographic Gallery. “Avocado” and the rest of the exhibited works are part of his private collection of Chappell’s work. The photographer was a close friend and mentor to Friedlander.
“Metaflora” is his “homage to Walter, who deserves to be better known as a photographer,” he explained.
The exhibit also includes a number of traditional photographs of landscape and natural objects. These photos reveal virtuosity in technical skill typical of the Association of Heliographers which Chappell co-founded in New York as well as the American Southwest themes typical of Group f/64 with whom he worked in San Francisco. Along with his contemporaries, Chappell “used photography as a means of understanding nature and the nature of oneself,” said Friedlander.
The exhibition will be open at the Photographic Gallery on the Plaza level of Abdul Latif Jameel Hall at the AUC New Cairo campus until Nov. 4. By sharing his collection with the public, Friedlander hopes to introduce a unique form of photographic expression and help visitors to “see art as the true language of communication, that I believe is the only language that can be used to solve the problems of the world.”