Still Learning to See: John Snell Photo Exhibit

by Joyce Kahn

Mail Slot. Photo courtesy John Snell.

Mail Slot. Photo courtesy John Snell.

If your visual senses are crying out, deprived by the stark landscape of a winter that seems to relentlessly drag on and on, they will thank you for feeding them when you visit John Snell’s exhibit of 31 photographs at the Central Vermont Medical Center Art Gallery, for it is a feast of color, design and pattern and primarily a celebration of the natural world. In the show, Still Learning to See, Snell pays homage to the artist’s unending journey to find the striking in the assemblage of color and the variety of pattern and texture in the natural and man-made world.

But it is with an artist’s eye that Snell hones in on his subject, making compositions that are dramatic and engaging, and that invite the viewer to look more closely at what intrigued him. Snell has traveled the world extensively, and many of his photographs capture precious moments in time from these travels. But whether the photo is an aerial image of farm fields near Oklahoma City or a close-up view of a tulip petal, Snell’s vision is one of an artist who appreciates the diversity in nature, or, as Snell says, “the astonishing variety of life forms in our world.”

This photographic exhibit is not for artists only. It is not one for which you need earphones and a running commentary to understand and access the artist’s intent. Look on the wall at each end of the exhibit for the two-page handout Snell has thoughtfully assembled for the viewer. This is an inventory of many of the photos, identified by a colored thumbnail accompanied by one or two lines of explanation. While no explanations are needed to enjoy the photographs, Snell’s comments inform the viewer of where and why he took each photo and also introduce you to his poetic sensibility.

Tulip Petals. Photo courtesy John Snell.

Tulip Petals. Photo courtesy John Snell.

Snell has an obvious love of color. Entering the exhibit, my eye was immediately drawn to Sassafras and Blue Sky. The boldness of the large yellow flower against the expanse of blue sky made me smile. The feeling I had was akin to walking into a greenhouse in the dead of winter. We in Vermont get so acclimatized to the lack of color for so many months, that a burst of color is like an assault on the senses, albeit a pleasant one. The pleasure to be derived from color is evident in Fall Color Reflections #1 and #2, which he describes as “Another way to see Fall in Vermont: reflected by the water in a small stream.” Another bold piece is the amazing sunset of mammatus clouds photographed in front of Snell’s house. Here again, the artist made use of the complementary orange and purple colors to freeze this beautiful image in time.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is another hallmark of this artist. Why does an artist shoot photographs or paint or sculpt or write? There is, to be sure, an inner compulsion and satisfaction, but along with that goes the desire to share that with others, to express something that moved him or her. New

New Ice. Photo courtesy John Snell.

New Ice. Photo courtesy John Snell.

Ice and Leaves of Grass is one such piece, where Snell’s close-up of new ice in shades of gray offset by one yellow-brown blade of grass invites the viewer to look more closely, as he does. Snell’s description: “When new ice forms, it seems to come from another planet,” invited me into his world, as did Red Oak Leaves and New Snow: “New snow changes the world, making Red Oak leaves seem to be dancers or sculpture.” Snell’s succinct descriptions show his talent for writing as well as photography.

Interesting patterns, whether made by shadows or reflections, abound in these compelling photographic images.

In Tate Modern Shadows, taken at the Tate Modern Museum in London, small black figures poised on large white stripes, which alternate vertically with black ones, reminded me of a play in which the curtain had just lifted and the performers were in place, ready to dance. When I stopped and looked closely, I realized that these small figures are people, and the drama created is due to sunlight streaming through the windows. In Amsterdam Reflections, the buildings and sky reflected in a canal reminded me of a beautiful mosaic. Salt #2, an aerial view of San Francisco’s salt ponds reminded me of a Mondrian painting because of its bold and colorful geometric pattern.

It is worth a trip to the hospital to see John Snell’s exhibit, now through March 15. Each photo is a gem, which the photographer captured and has graciously invited us to share.