Light is the force that animates all photography, of course. But two shows currently up at the University of Michigan Museum of Art play with light, or its absence, in unusual and arresting ways.
Rich, tropical sunlight drenches the work in “Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light,” where the photographer exploits shadow and light to great effect. By contrast, with “Overnight,” Detroit architect Catie Newell focuses on islands of light overwhelmed and defined by surrounding darkness.
“Poet” is up through Oct. 23. “Overnight” comes down Nov. 6.
Taking the latter first, Newell’s work pulls us into uncertain nighttime landscapes, when once-familiar places and objects morph into shadowy unknowns.
The untitled color photographs in this show, all shot last year, are drawn from Newell’s “Nightly Series,” and mostly consist of fine shadings of black, as you’d expect, punctuated by puddles of explosive light.
In one case, Newell catches the glint off two strips of disappearing snow in front of a dimly illuminated Tudor Revival home in Detroit.
In another, a lawn, almost like a baseball diamond, is brilliantly lit with no discernible source of light anywhere. This violently green horizontal strip floats in an apparent sea of darkness, strikingly framed by black silhouettes of telephone poles.
These are lyrical photos that deserve study — a quick walk past just won’t cut it. Your eyes need time to adjust to the fine shadings of black surrounding their bursts of light.
“Intentionally difficult to see,” Newell writes in her artist’s statement, “the works require an attentive, intimate viewing and a deepened sensitivity to the different spatial worlds that light and dark inscribe.”
Newell’s eye for unlikely beauty is a talent shared by photographer Bravo, who died in 2002 at 100.
In the electrifying “How Small Is the World (Que Chiquito Es El Mundo),” impossibly white laundry tosses on a line, caught between stormy skies above and a huge blank wall below.
A portrait of artist Frida Kahlo, by contrast, is formal in organization with the artist seated next to a reflecting ball that mirrors everything else in the room. Kahlo is her classically composed and solemn self. But just behind her feet, in a detail she surely relished, a Mayan stone carving with an ancient face leers out at the viewer.
Or consider “Lengthened Light (Luz Restirada),” where shadows of tree branches cast upon a blank roof acquire the fine precision and beauty of lacework.
Both Bravo and Newell have a gift for investing their still life and landscapes with gravity and mystery, conjuring the magical from the ordinary.
‘Catie Newell: Overnight’
Through Nov. 6
‘Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light’
Through Oct. 23
University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State, Ann Arbor
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.- Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.