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Boston Globe Review of Olin College Exhibit, March 2014

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 mfeeney@globe.com.

Review Boston Phoenix circa 2003

The Illuminated Walden: In the Footsteps of Thoreau (Friedman/Fairfax, 144 pages, $19.95)

photos by John Wawrzonek, edited by Ronald A. Bosco, foreword by Don Henley, text by H.D. Thoreau

Sometimes books of nature photos are just pretty, and Southborough-based photographer John Wawrzonek has no trouble producing pretty pictures. But his latest book, devoted to scenes at Walden Pond and around Walden Woods, shot between 1991 and 2002, is far more than a bound collection of calendar photos. Wawrzonek, who’s senior partner at LightSong, a company that specializes in a state-of-the-art method of reproducing large-format color prints for display, brings a level of artistic involvement to his work that puts it miles ahead of the commercial " scenics " for which your grandmother might mistake them.

The sensitivity to light and weather showcased in his Walden photographs impart a tangible quality that rivals any achieved by America’s 19th-century landscape artists. In addition, the photos function as an essay — a document of Walden that echoes the subtleties of the excerpts from Thoreau’s book that accompany the prints. By using Walden as his touchstone for philosophical discourse, Thoreau, perhaps the purest American thinker, turned a small kettle-hole pond in Concord into a shrine, visited annually by 750,000 people — many seeking a mystical connection between Henry David’s 1854 treatise and their own lives, most of whom leave reinforced and inspired.

Wawrzonek, in an introduction to The Illuminated Walden, describes making his own connection — between Thoreau’s writing and the site’s common, fragile naturalism that’s rendered monumental by those words. Clearly, this photo book is the product of honest and deep inspiration. Wawrzonek’s well-mastered craft has been applied to a high purpose; the result is nothing short of a prayer book for secular humanists. And, yes, it’s very pretty.

Press Comments

“...a mind bending treat...The prints vibrate with life, texture, detail and color.”

–Boston Globe

“...captures nature with beauty, sensitivity, and a touch of the divine.”

—Art New England

“...immaculately and elegantly viewed in magnificent visions.”

–Grand Rapids Press

“...images of vivid color and stunning beauty.”
“...his photographs are breathtaking.”

“The detail and color of these photographs draw the viewer almost hypnotically.”

“...the artist’s sense of form, his selection of masses of color are painterly and vigorous.”

“It is difficult to single out photographs that stand above others in this exhibition, but there are a few I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life with.”

–Memphis Appeal

“...a breathtaking collection of landscapes that might possibly change the way you think about landscape photography forever.”

“...it is almost as though the scenes are being viewed through the eyes of an extrasensitive being.”

—Arrive (New Orleans)

“...you have transformed the routine into a magical moment, for I spend time in amazement, mystified, wondering how it was done.

How is it you can see when I cannot?

What gift do you have and why has life not given me the same gift?... Yet how grateful I am for your vision for without it I would be cheated.”

—email, March 2014, Walter Bala, photographer, Seattle REVIEW EXCEROTS

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