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Venturing into Thin Air

by Joseph Montebello

Photography has always been Kathy Root’s first love. Ten years ago, she opened KMR Arts Gallery in Washington Depot and she has been mounting cutting-edge exhibits ever since.

Whether it is the work of old masters such as Lillian Bassman, Leo Fuchs and Paul Caponigro, or new photographers at the beginning of their careers, Root’s presentations are not to be missed. Her latest exhibition features the work of Catherine Erb and it has a special meaning for Root.

“I grew up in Memphis, as did Catherine, and our mothers were best friends,” she explains “We were together a lot because of that but I hadn’t seen her since we were kids. It’s been a joy to reconnect with her through our mutual passion for photographic art. I am deeply impressed by her devotion to her work and I feel immensely grateful that we can work together in the complementary roles of artist and gallerist. And, needless to say, I think the work is stunning.”

But that doesn’t begin to describe the uniqueness of Erb’s work. Although she has photographed many things, from steeples to people to an extraordinary group of fishing lures, Erb is particularly interested in the natural elements. In this current exhibition, “Thin Air,” she has focused her attention on clouds.

“There are lots of subjects that photographers keep going back to: water, flowers, landscapes, oceans, ballet dancers,” says Root. “They are great images and open to so many interpretations, dating back centuries. Clouds fit into that category. But when you see someone who takes subject matter that is familiar and shows you something new about it or turns it inside out, you have to stop and pause. That’s what Catherine’s work makes you do.”

It was a high school art teacher who encouraged Erb to pursue her interest in photography. Upon graduating, she spent several years in Europe working with various photographers and honing her skills. When she returned to Memphis she began using photography as a visual journal and creative outlet for her thoughts.

“Photography has always been a form of journaling and meditation for me,” says Erb. “I am inspired by relationships—how we relate to the world around us, how we relate to ourselves. And I am especially fascinated with our relationship with divinity and spirit.

“For me, the image I am photographing is the beginning of a quest. My cloud series is all about having higher thoughts. Clouds fascinated me when I was a child. I used to lie on the ground and change their shapes in my mind.”

Now she photographs clouds through airplane windows. Yes, airplane windows. While the view may be spectacular, she is focusing her lens up against Plexiglas windows that are not only small but also generally smudged and scratched. And consider her maneuvers as she contorts herself to navigate in a severely cramped space. One wonders how fellow passengers feel.

“I think Catherine kind of likes that,” says Root. “She is essentially in the clouds, she’s not on the ground looking up. When you see her pictures in person you have this feeling of being off the earth, somehow floating above it. These are not aerial photographs but as you observe them you have the feeling of being in the clouds yourself.”

Although the space through which Erb is shooting is relatively small, her images are impressively large. The average size is 36-by-80 inches. Walking into the gallery definitely feels as if you are walking among these extraordinary billows of nature.

Erb loves the idea that the images are marred by the imperfections in the windows and she makes no attempt to compensate for them.

“I love dirty, nasty glass that I can put in front of my lenses and filters so it’s like I’m shooting through a veil. We all look at life through our own veils, so why not play with that?”

And play she does. While she engages in digital photography she has a unique process to personalize her images. They are printed on thin Japanese watercolor paper, which she attaches to birch board. She then applies as many as 20 layers of encaustic wax. In between layers she may add pastel or gold leaf to create a desired effect. The result is an image that resembles a tintype, suggesting the feeling of timelessness.

Because of their sizes, Erb’s photographs can be viewed up close or standing as far back as possible. The former position enables the observer to experience the expanse of massive clouds and feel their all-encompassing impact, a sense of the viewer engulfed in the image. Standing far back, one is an observer following the movements of one of nature’s miracles.

The images in “Thin Air” are stunning and transcend the reality of clouds in the sky. Erb’s fascination with divinity and spirit takes these images to a new level.

“There is a little break in time that occurs after something comes into my viewfinder, but before I have had a chance to react or form a judgment; there is clarity in that interval of time and I try to shoot and capture that moment. When I am successful, the result is not just an image, but a feeling and reminder that the magic always happens in the present.”

The opening reception for Thin Air is Saturday, December 2nd, from 3-6PM. KMR Arts is located at 2 Titus Road, Washington Depot. For more information please visit the link below.