The photographs are poised between eeriness and stunning beauty. Dark ivy boils from a hallucinatory red wall. Dandelion puffs glow yellow where they should be white. An electric mass of cherry blossoms dissolves into the bright blue sky. The filaments at the heart of the lotus stream out like clouds of cosmic dust, nurturing galaxies.
“I guess it started way back…” said Steve Halperson, the photographer who’s distinctive style is on display along with his mother Nina Tisara’s mosaics in the exhibit “A Golden Spring” hosted by the Durant Center for the Performing and Visual Arts on Cameron St.
Halperson said the origins of this work began twenty years ago, when he was shooting night photographs in Alexandria. He began by shooting traditionally, using an eight second exposure. But there were drawbacks to this method, such as dodging traffic while standing in the middle of the street holding a tripod. When his printer accidentally processed a role in the wrong manner, Halperson found his “signature.” He began “cross processing” a technique in which he shoots with negative film, then processes it as if it were slide film. White becomes yellow. Red becomes magenta.
“Very unusual things happen with the chemistry and the dye couplers. There are multiple layers in the film.” His explanation is hesitant, partially because some aspects of the mechanics are a mystery even it him. “Its part of that magic,” he says. “It’s a family secret.”
“A secret recipe,” his mother interjects.
Halperson says he only began doing nature photography because he had wanted to use up some film in order to get it processed. He became attracted to the results because they were “timeless.” Cityscapes, he points out, quickly become dated as buildings are torn down and cars and clothes go out of style.
“At one point I was trying to capture night photography,” he said, “but what was unique and surreal became the cross-processing… As artists we look for unique ways of expressing ourselves. Signature moves people can look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, I know who did that.’”
The images in this exhibition are all from between 1998 and 2002. With the advent of digital photography, Halperson has been unable to find a printing lab that can do the custom-processing necessary for his pictures. He is currently holding film that he has been unable to process, and is unsure whether he will be able to continue in this style.
“WHEN IT EXCITES YOU to see something,” Halpern says, “the more you shoot, the harder it is-”
“To get that same thrill,” Tisara says, finishing his sentence. “Artists are always evolving. If you are a creative person you are always needing to find ways to face the challenge of how to express yourself.”
This show is here because Tisara, a professional photographer, is taking a mosaics class. Her teacher, Gene Sterud, has two pieces in the exhibit as a guest artist. Tisara was tired of commuting to the classroom, near Tyson’s Corner, so she brought Sterud in contact with the Durant Center and booked the exhibition space for works by his mosaic students. Sterud decided he would rather wait to exhibit his class’s mosaics, but he will be teaching a mosaics class at Durant this spring.
As a professional photographer, Tisara seems to have an acceptance of the “perennial dilemma that artists face” in trying to compromise between making “pure” art and art they can sell. “The criteria I used [for selecting the work on display] was to put up an exhibit that was beautiful and to try to reach interior decorators, who will buy a piece for a home or an office. That was my purpose.”
“These are things that are so intrinsically beautiful that people like me and others want to look at them all the time.”
Tisara’s mosaics are representations of her own photographs. “I wanted mosaics of my own images, not other people’s,” she said. She built one mosaic from a photo she had taken of trees in Huntley Meadows on a snowy day. The planes of snow between the dark verticals of the trees are broken up by swooping vines. The snow is white, pale blue, and even gleams with small shards of mirror. “It became exciting for me to do something in a new way,” Tisara said, “like translate snow into tile.” She compared working on a mosaic to working in a darkroom. “It’s a lot of fun because I can work on it at night by myself and I spend hours and hours doing it.”
Unlike most mosaic artists, who use uniform, square tiles, Tisare shapes each tile according to its function. “I don’t want to do little squares,” she said, “I want to use shapes that are relevant to the pictures I’m making.” As for the novel exercise of carefully choosing each color for each detail instead of mechanically recording an entire subject at once, Tisara said “I mix [colors] the way an impressionist might mix them, according to how the eye is going to see them when you’re standing back and looking at them.
If the uniqueness of her vision is not enough, Tisara has a signature: a tiny silver gecko embedded in a corner of each of her mosaics. “It’s the little symbol of who I am,” she said. “It makes me smile when I see it.”
Tisara began her photography business out of her basement in 1985. She was living in Fairlington. Steven joined the business several years later. Her daughter Lynn followed as well. Now the family splits duties at Tisara Photography as Tisara eases out of the business to let her children take over.
So, when it started way back, why did she ever take the bold step of quitting her job and starting a studio in her basement? Tisara has a simple answer, “I decided I would die if I didn’t become a photographer.”