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Strokes of Light

Photographer Caroline Altmann uses her body as a brush and the world as a palette.

Below the spans of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, slabs of ice and snow mask the Potomac River’s flow, homogenizing the landscape and soaking up the weak sunlight. The world is fractured, white and gray. In her BMW, Caroline Altmann is giving a condensed lecture on the improving fortunes of contemporary fine art photography. She is wearing sunglasses and leather driving gloves. She grips the wheel with both hands.

“There’s still somewhat of a misimpression of how easy it is to take a photograph,” she says.

In photo number 5489, an oak is a flat mass threaded with white sky. It has the illusionary heft of a cumulous cloud gathering a summer day’s last light. The tiny pixels of brightness that should be glittering between the leaves have instead been spun into thousands of silks that wisp free and intermesh. The intensity of the setting sunlight drives the tree into three dimensions, pouring orange into its west-facing leaves. Below them, dark scrub drifts from the pale earth like smoke.

“About 25 years ago I took a [long-exposure] picture of my roommate in my Cambridge apartment, behind a shower curtain and then walking through a corridor,” Altmann explains. “I really liked the ephemeral quality of that movement. It hinted at something in the subconscious that more in-focus photographs didn’t.”

After a digression into business school and Wall Street, motherhood and meditation plunked Altmann right back into that long moment of exposure. In 2005 she got a digital camera and began exploring the interaction between movement and shutter speed. Altman conceptualizes her technique as painting with brushstrokes of light.

“I feel like I’m twisting light,” she says, “that I’m actually shaping it.”

ALTMANN WAS BORN in Brazil, to German and American parents. She grew up around art and, until college, she was intent on creating it. She stopped, she explained, “inadvertently. I went to business school because I thought the thing to do was make a lot of money and become a collector.” She became a portfolio manager on Wall Street. But a year on exchange in Japan, for which she brought almost nothing and bought little while she was there, soured her on the idea of accumulation. “It was just fantastic not to own anything, not to need anything, because I was too busy having a good time.”

She was married in the late 1990’s, and the couple moved to Hollin Hills before the turn of the century. Altmann quit managing money and started meditating. “I sat down and it was like a vault door, a bank opened, and out came these complete [artistic] ideas.”

When she decided to become a professional artist, she approached the change in careers in a businesslike way. She prioritized customer service, working with clients to make their photos work in series, and helping them frame and even hang them. In her show, she uses detailed labels to improve the connection between artist and audience, a relationship she believes the D.C. art scene should do more to cultivate.

Catriona Fraser, who owns the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda and offers seminars on how to make it as a professional artist (one of which Altmann attended) said the photographer’s work departs from the current trend in photography of big, realistic pictures of “bleak, cold urban decay… a burned out car next to a trash can.” Citing Altmann’s flowers and landscapes, Fraser said, “She’s doing something new that’s very traditional. She’s made an abstract image from something that’s traditionally very static.”

Last summer, Altmann was looking for a parking space while running late for a lunch date in Georgetown. In rapid succession, a police officer gave her a ticket and her friend called to postpone by an hour. So Altmann went looking for good walls. She found some in the showroom of Poltrona Frau, an Italian leather furniture-maker located at 1010 Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown. Resident architect Ciro Monti agreed to display her photos. “What I like in Caroline’s work is the colors,” he said. “Nothing better than nature can give the inspiration for my job as an architect here. If the nature can put together orange with the green with the blue, why shouldn’t we?”

ALTHOUGH ALTMANN will use Photoshop software to subtly adjust colors so they are consistent within a series, the special effects visible in her photos on display at the showroom of Poltrona Frau are created only with movement (hers and the world’s) and the settings on her camera.

“I’m physically exhausted by the time I finish this,” she said, gesturing to a hosta leaf that coils like a stream of liquid chlorophyll across the frame.

During a shoot, Altmann can be found “shaking, moving, dancing, running” in the garden behind her home in Hollin Hills or turning a car sharply on a dusty road in a remote corner of Arizona, moving her camera one way as the car moves the other (how she created the “Grasslands” series on display at her show). “If you can get two or three movements in at the same time then you’ve got some really interesting things happening,” she explains.

After a shoot, Altman retreats inside (“hopefully without too many mosquito bites”) and pores over the images, looking for the ones that lead her deeper towards the right effect. She will focus her next shoot on exploring those effects, then repeat the editing process. “You know what you’re looking for and you try to work it with your camera and your body.” This can go on for weeks.

After years of working with light, Altmann says she can look at a photograph and know exactly how to reproduce its effect the next time she goes out. She compares her mindset on a shoot to another of her pastimes: rock-climbing. “They’re both very meditative,” she says. “You’ve got to be in the flow. You’ve got to let the moment work for itself.”