Stopping Time

by Richard RossRichard Ross has snapped several photographs of the J. Paul Getty Museum's reconstruction, one of which features a gaping square hole cut into the floor of a room caked with the dust and debris of violent transformation. Around the hole's edge, steep piles of rubble threaten to collapse into the void. From beneath the floor, an unseen source shoots defiant light through the hole, illuminating the wreckage. Once a simple allegory of destruction and rebirth, the photo has taken on a new and unintended meaning in recent months.

The subject of this—and of all Ross' images—is light: its connotations, its drama and ultimately its objectivity. While light seems to impose a narrative—draping the shoulders of heroes or ignoring eerie corners—it is in fact indifferent. Only the photographer's framing of a moment and the viewer's interpretation of it create the story. “Gathering Light” is Ross' successful attempt to freeze photons in the act of transforming their surroundings—heightening their passion, their irony and their contradictions.

On one level, the large color prints seem to settle into opposing camps—light is artificial or natural, utilitarian or aesthetic, austere or elaborate, sacred or secular, its origins seen or hidden. Ross plays with these polarities, mixing them with provocative results. Two photos of the ancient Topkapi Palace in Istanbul seem to suggest an absurdity of opposites. The first shows towering, intricately tiled palace doors and walls—or most of them, at least. A large chunk is obscured by an eyesore of a kiosk manned by an unfortunate man in a tie and turban. A prominent electrical cord slithers across the print, from the bluntly lit booth to an unseen outlet. The second picture—the palace's harem anteroom, bathed in a glow normally reserved for virgin goddesses—is proof that light is indeed indifferent.

Other works showcase Ross' knack for bending reality toward the surreal, though his techniques stretch beyond capturing unearthly light. An ordinary object divorced from its usual purpose and surroundings becomes extraordinary. A shadowed Warner Bros. prop room becomes an eerie purgatory for a group of animals frozen in action. The silver horse's glassy gaze bounces off a mirror to meet yours. Around his neck is tied a neat noose whose free end trails loosely on the floor. Other shots tweak the camera angle for vertiginous effect.

Ross' most striking photograph is visually and emotionally unique, void of the spiritual, sublime or austere overtones of its neighbors. An excavated room in Pompeii is tattooed with a fresco of running rams, lions and other beasts in earthy tones. A diagonal shaft of light rips the far wall in two and then bends toward the viewer as it runs along the floor. The beam is as jagged as a rusty saw and bright enough to obscure any images caught in its glare. The scene conjures images of vengeful gods, parting seas, holy wars and horrific pagan myths buried beneath 2,000 years of ash. It bursts with a violent energy, while the other photographs seem strangely serene or timeless.

These are the incorporeal qualities that light most embodies on film. When snaring a single beam of light in a shutter release or merging a stretch of minutes with a long exposure, Ross isn't just stopping light; he is stopping time. “Ferry Stop, Jesolo, Italy” reveals its long exposure time not only by the myriad blues and greens in the sky and sea (long nighttime exposures often produce dramatic color shifts), but also by the translucent, ghostly figures on the ferry—people who were present for just a fraction of the time the lens was open. They flicker against the backdrop of eternity and are gone.

Many of the works are like that, capturing a single moment that represents all moments—a symbol of some eternal truth or mental state. A few are more overt—a doorway surrounded by looming tapestries opens onto a temple whose candles illuminate several golden Buddhas and their worshipers. Others are subtle—an arched doorway surrounded by a degraded, blackened faade leads down a corridor of stairs. A yellow light climbs up from an unseen chamber below, inviting the viewer in—a clean, well-lighted place, though upon close inspection, one can see that the walls of the hallway are scuffed. While one may draw several conclusions, the image can surely be a metaphor for the battered body that houses the immortal soul. The endless search for improvement, perfection, completeness, the final threshold one may call home.

Several photographs (in this installation and elsewhere) illustrate the so-called divine light, rays from above that stream through windows and pierce the dust in musty European churches. But the light that is most intriguing here seems to come from below—up through a blemished stairwell or a hole in the floor. Not a symbol of a higher world as much as a symbol of man's determination to believe in one.

“Richard Ross—Gathering Light” at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; Through March 31. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free on Tues.

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