Entering the Underworld

by Joan Seeman Robinson

There is an image of Sally Gall's, Into Darkness, that is deeply disorienting. Up to the late 19905 her photographs of nature have implied the stance of the viewer — poised on a cliff, entering a swamp, brushing through a field of sunflowers, perched on a pool's edge. And one always sensed an infrastructure of horizontals and verticals inferring an underlying order, a reassuring stability, even when spatial warps or gauzy shrouds made us doubt the serenity of such prospects.

Into Darkness is a landmark in Gall's career because she has gone underground to photograph caves. Vanishing Point,1999, in black and white, has as its focus an impenetrable black hole whose flinty borders seem to twist in a counter clock­wise direction. A chalky white wall sur­rounds it. In the left foreground a gloomy gray peak sprouts an inverted twin peak whose upper mass twines snakily around the hole's irradiated outline. The effect is of a swirling light or an aerial weather map of a spinning hurricane. The image is expressively and formally both roiling and arresting.

On closer examination one sees that the scale of the entire chamber is actually as vast as its cosmic effect, for at the base of the "black hole" there are minuscule footprints in sand. Gall is within a real cave but its cavernous depth is blacked out with later darkroom manipulations. Its centrifugal and threatening force is both quelled and magnified by her inten­sifications of light and dark. Gall forces the issue of the known and the unknown, beauty and terror, through her control of tones, textures and values. Despite our experiential knowledge of chambers and corridors, the spinning black vortex seems to press forward ominously. It is illogical and unnerving in its blunt impenetrability — menacing, claustrophobic and even more implacable when we finally note a watery canyon far below, its three-dimensionality unmodified, its great stones shrunk like pebbles. In Vanishing Point (and in another print, Shift) it is this silent transit of water that not only suggests passage but associates it with the earth's creation. Vanishing Point is at the core of this mid-career work, a sign of the probity of this new "landscape," a summons to consider its mythic dimen­sions. While Gall waits for the critical moment to capture and compose her subjects (using only available light), her darkroom interventions frequently cancel spatial depth in an attempt to perpetuate the timeless significance of these perceptions. In memory, after all, it is not motion, volume and mass which persist, but an iconic resonance which is an indefinable, often illogical, mystical quotient requiring transformation, a "going beyond" in order to be real. She intensifies the spiritual issues: black is the unknown, light is blinding, gray is the scrim through which we must pass. It is as if Gall is warning us of our pre­sumptive knowledge of planet earth and creating an icon of the yet unexplored—a warning of what might lie ahead—and within.
Looking back at her career, one re­collects that, she has always sought the inexplicable in nature. A student of the history of photography, yes, but a vision­ary in her own right, she has been lightly called a romantic for her earlier series on seashores, a pictorialist for her misty reveries in gardens. To the Romantics of the late i8th and early 19th centuries the "Sublime," as they termed it, was actually to be "awe-ful," or full of awe. Gall finds beauty in all things terrestrial, but beauty is defined and enhanced by its opposites— she emphasizes the unsettling, the fear­ some, the precipitous. That is how real dimensions of depth are unearthed.
Vanishing Point and Shift, with their hidden recesses, are eerie destinations in a journey which begins with entrances into caves, as in Spill and Departure. One can read these, and Frontier, as both leav­ing and reentering the outer world. Once inside, in Safe Light, a silent sea of indeter­minate size flows around a distant craggy peak — or is it a miniaturized island with tiny harbors and inlets? Its pointy shape is reencountered in Relic, where the tower of a Buddhist shrine rises from yet another promontory. In another remarkable image a huge, pendulous ceiling hovers planet-like over an immense chamber, where willowy ladders are propped for access to bat guano. At their base stands a sliver-sized man, barely visible on the floor of this underground forage. We finally are released through Oasis and Observatory, eccentric openings (a leaf-like shape that is round but pointed at one end, appear­ing in many of Gall's compositions), that seems, after the interior darkness, to yearn for the sky. Rocks and plants fringe their mouths making the blinding daylight appear almost celestial, as if the shimmer­ing air and the bleached forests beyond promise a spiritual transcendence rather than simply a recovered terrain.

Gall has engaged in serious research on the subject of caves. She has traveled globally to study, experience and photo­graph them, crossing their thresholds alone, laden with backpack, tripod and a heavy Hasselblad camera. Photographing caves has meant literally entering the earth, its corpus, seeing the very porosity and permeability of its shifting plates, its water-carved corridors and caverns, the membranous webbing of stalactites and stalagmites formed by the drip, dripping of water. This has been no expeditionary enterprise. At mid-career she wanted to go "down under, into the depths." And, she seems to see through her subjects. We are intensely aware of her meditated approach to nature, the arresting beauty of these settings, of stillness and calm. This is partly because she works only in black and white. (One cannot imagine her electing the effulgence of color; its optical demands and sensuosity would clamor for attention.) She seeks a tonal range solicitous of the subtler states of mind, enhancing them with the complex and elusive qualities of her own experience. If, as I say, she seems to see through her sub­jects, it is also to suggest that she, in turn, is permeated by them. In fact, these new images are larger than any of her previous work. They are now 28" x 28" rather than 24" x 24". The impulse to be at one with her views, can be chronicled throughout her career by the recurring theme of water, and is moored in memories of family vacations. The experience of seeing, feeling and thinking is for her a pondering of the potentials and the ulti­mate mysteries latent in the natural world — and which she further explores in the darkroom. As a result, we ourselves are often not sure that we know what we are looking at, or that we know where we are in relation to her images because her own relation to her subjects depends, as she says, on what emanates from them. It is "the power of nature itself" that drives her.

To be surrounded by these images from Gall's underworld is visually to sense silence. The flight of bats and the scent of their deposits are absent, as is the drip of water, its resonance and echoes. The aura of isolation is most chillingly present in a lingering humidity, and permeated with the unrecorded history of early human passage. It is water, not land, that propels her imagination, reminding one of Her­man Melville's introduction to Moby Dick: "Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are married forever." Gall's own studio is within view of the Hudson River where Melville worked in lower Manhat­tan as a customs clerk in the 18205. When the English critic lames Wood said, "Mel­ville wrote the novel that is every writer's dream of freedom. It is as if he painted a patch of blue sky for the imprisoned" he might just as well have been responding to Sally Gall's new theme, the under­worlds she has recorded and made her own.
Joan Seeman Robinson works as an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Sally Gall, a former Houston resident,
is represented by Texas Gallery and currently resides in New YorkCity.

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