NEEDHAM — Virtuosity is something very unusual — unusual in at least two senses.
It’s unusual because it’s so rare. Ability is one thing. There’s a fair amount of it out there (and thank goodness for that). But virtuosity is quite another. Virtuosos are few and far between.
Virtuosity is also unusual because it’s paradoxical. It elicits a sense of wonder, than which there are few more welcome things in this life, yet it also distances. Where ability beckons, virtuosity overwhelms. Listening to a recording by a Vladimir Horowitz or an Art Tatum, who doesn’t feel a bit of awe (or more than a bit) at what each man can do at the keyboard? Yet how many of those listeners are in a hurry to listen again?
John Wawrzonek is clearly a virtuoso. Fifteen of his large-size color photographs make up “The Hidden World of the Nearby.” The show is at the Olin College of Engineering through April 25. Looking at Wawrzonek’s pictures, you find yourself asking, “How did he take that picture?” They proclaim his technical mastery that forthrightly. That’s not the same thing as asking yourself, “How can I take that picture home with me?”
An electrical engineer by training, with three degrees from MIT, Wawrzonek didn’t seriously take up photography until he was in his mid-30s. That was four decades ago. Even without that background, or the particular academic setting, one can discern that engineering background. These images of natural beauty — fall foliage, an ice storm, budding trees — are marvels of technique, impressively capturing texture, color, and detail. Wawrzonek uses a view camera, which excels at precision of detail. Somehow he’s able to go beyond even what one expects from such a device. There’s a pinpoint precision to his details, as there is a sometimes-startling painterliness to his textures. Some of these pictures verge on photographic trompe-l’oeil, conveying an illusion of impasto.
Such spectacular effects can bring with them a sense of unreality. Nature seems means as much as end, optics as pertinent as artistry. Making such observations feels churlish when a photograph like “Early Buds on Maple Trees, I” or “Peak Color” presents such a ravishing delicacy of color. But it’s a case of that duality virtuosity is so prone to: off-putting wonder.
“The Hidden World of the Nearby” is definitely a candidate for best exhibition title of 2014 — and it’s only March. The title isn’t quite accurate. Wawrzonek has photographs here from as far away as Maine’s Baxter State Park and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But he’s also spent many years photographing Walden Pond, and “Early Buds” and “Peak Colors” were taken from an Interstate 90 overpass in Weston. Here’s one driver who gets his money’s worth when he pays his tolls, and then some.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.