At The Corner Store, Artistic Diversions

Posted: January 02, 2000

UNIONVILLE — In the sea of Chester County watercolorists, fine-art photographers here often claim they can only tread water.

While painters have a ready-made market depicting local scenes, photographers who work with unmanipulated images, or "straight photography," typically find themselves struggling to discover the right venue and niche.

Enter Michael Kahn, a Unionville-based photographer, who has made a career of recording such subjects as the rushing waters of the Brandywine, cornfields down the road, and stone walls.

Recently Kahn has turned his vintage, box-shaped camera to a subject he says sells best to the resort-and-beach-community market: historic wooden boats.

The boat series, taken at places off the Maine coast, on lakes in the Adirondacks, and around the island of Antigua, is part of a joint exhibit at the Corner Store, a neighborhood landmark in this area known for its horses and cattle.

Kahn decided to exhibit at a place where people usually buy sandwiches, in part because he lives nearby but had never shown the work locally. He was curious about the response. A few years ago, when the entire series was published in the magazine Adirondack Life, the "phone didn't stop ringing," Kahn recalled at the opening reception recently.

He also wanted to have a dual showing with Lisa Tyson Ennis, a West Chester photographer who recently began to exhibit after raising three children.

Ennis' life on a local horse farm is reflected in many of her photographs. They also include images of her young daughter, Sophia, and hand-colored nature photography that presents such subjects as ferns and lichen-covered rocks as serene still-lifes.

Of particular interest is Ennis' use of infrared photography, a relatively new fine-arts medium that some still associate with military espionage and shooting night scenes.

Creating infrared landscapes has turned Ennis into a midday photographer, since the medium works best in bright light, "pulling out the whites" of shadowy forms, as Ennis describes it.

Although a few of Ennis' photographs have an eerie, sand-blasted effect - a hollow-eyed frame house sitting in a field, for instance, resembles a scene from a Civil War documentary - most of the pictures achieve a soft-focus, nostalgic look.

There are scenes of cows lumbering among dark stands of trees reflected in the water of the Brandywine, for example. "It creates a dreamy, contrasty effect," Ennis said.

Ennis' techniques provide an interesting contrast with Kahn's black-and-white images of historic "schooners, scows and skipjacks," as he recently summed up his boat series.

Kahn, a lifelong sailor, has been known to track down old oyster dredgers still working the Chesapeake Bay, though he prefers the "crisp" lighting and water of New England. He sees such photographs as capturing a disappearing lifestyle.

Kahn, who includes a history of each boat with each photograph, said that many of his collectors are so familiar with certain historic boats, they don't mind when only parts of the vessel are shown.

Included in the exhibit, for example, are shots of elaborate ratlines and shrouds and white sail in full bloom, said Kahn. He acknowledges a Walker Evans approach to abstracting commonplace elements, as in the 1930s photographer's pictures of car headlights and hubcaps.

Speaking recently at the exhibit's opening reception, Kahn said that the success of the boat series was unexpected, even though he, himself, is passionate about sailing and nautical history.

After years of working on portfolios ranging from Russian ballerinas to scenes of the American Southwest, a chance encounter with a century-old wooden boat on a lake in the Adirondacks convinced Kahn to preserve such boats on paper.

Today Kahn, a self-employed photographer since 1990, spends his summers away from Chester County. He is apt to spend hours adrift in a single scull, waiting for the fog to lift and the moment when he says the three elements of black-and-white photography - lighting, composition and contrast - are perfect.

The Corner Store is at Routes 82 and 162 in Unionville. Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 to 4 p.m. Sunday. The exhibit is open to the public and continues through January.

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