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Whitmore gallery awash in abstract glow

Mar 01, 2018 10:45AM ● Published by Josh Wood

An example of Alan Chow's abstract photography. (Alan Chow)

The walls of the quiet gallery in the basement of Whitmore Library radiated streaks of colored light. The framed glass lining the hallway seemed to reach out and demand closer inspection, even as the viewers’ eyes bounced from one frenetic scene to another. That was the impact of the art on display at Cottonwood Heights’s flagship library as photographs of colored light soothed the eye while challenging the imagination of those who enjoyed the exhibit.

The work of local artist Alan Chow holds a unique power, like trying to grab onto light itself, but his goal is to make each abstract image something that viewers can grasp in their own way.

“The thing I try to get across is that despite its abstractness, it’s up to the person to get what they can out of it,” Chow said in a recent interview. “If you can return to the image and see it in a different way, I find that satisfying.”

Chow’s art walks that fine line common to abstract art — finding a way to capture the essence of a subject while discovering alternatives for depicting it. Chow discovered photography while working for his college newspaper. A friend of his, the paper’s photographer, introduced Chow to photography and brought him into the darkroom and revealed to him the techniques for bringing an image to life.

Chow has taken those initial lessons in interesting new directions. “I got tired of the realist school and got interested in abstraction,” he said. “I started off shooting certain things that interested me at the time, and then my style evolved. You take on something else. Things that interested you five years ago may not interest you now. What I do now might not interest me in the future. What I do now is a reinterpretation of reality. That’s what I enjoy about my work now.”

The images captured by Chow through various techniques like long exposure give new life to his subjects. The object loses the clear definition it once had. Its lines become blurred, the light radiates and seems to constantly release energy toward its viewer, and what was once simply defined opens up to interpretation. Chow may stumble upon something that he has seen a hundred times and one day see something interesting to capture.

“I’m looking for color, contrasts in color,” he said. “I look for images of source material that can be reimagined by long exposure, zooming, that sort of thing. I could just be walking by a storefront or whatever and find something that could be good source material.”

Although the final product may seem a far cry from the original source material, Chow emphasized the importance of each image being created in the camera. With all the options available with computers to manipulate photographs, all of Chow’s images on display at Whitmore were created with an initial, single, extended “in camera” exposure.

Chow finds his inspiration in different ways. “How many photographs I take and when I take them is dependent on my mood,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not taking pictures at all. Sometimes I’m always taking pictures. It happens in the moment of the muse, I guess you could say, or the moment of epiphany.”

Technology does help capture that moment. “Smartphones help when you don’t have a five-pound piece of equipment hanging around your neck,” Chow said. “I might be walking and see something and think, ‘wait, this is perfect. I need to take a picture of that.’”

Chow counts photographers like Ernst Haas, Harry Callahan and Pete Turner as key influences on his work. “They were street photographers who enjoyed being in the moment and seeing things differently, noticing things that have always been there,” he said. “I try to open my eyes just a little bit wider and see things differently.”

Visitors to Chow’s exhibit at Whitmore got to carry on that experience. Chow’s representation of his subjects challenged viewers to find their own interpretations. With each photograph, with each viewing, those interpretations will continue to be new.  

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