"Your camera is like
a Geiger counter. It takes you to the right place. When it faces something
that doesn't interest you, there is no tick-ticking, but when
it faces something you like, it is ticking away."
A nude figure photographed
through the tall reeds takes the form of a landscape, an organic shape
partially submerged in water. The image is by Boston photographer Karin
Rosenthal. Light is Rosenthal's main concern, how it falls upon
her model and creates the mystery and ambiguity that defines her work.
In her reverence for the human form Rosenthal processes all of her own
black and white film, working much like an accomplished etcher, proofing
her prints with variations in contrast, cropping and interpreting the
dark and light areas while looking for the greatest harmony and subtlety
Rosenthal's history runs deep. Her grandmother and mother were
photographers and as refugees from Nazi Germany, photography became
their entrée into the cultural community of Hartford, Connecticut.
Rosenthal recalls rocking prints in trays in the darkroom when she was
3 years old and trying to amuse other children while her mother photographed
"My brother and I were both photographing as kids and at age 6,
I asked for a camera. I thought that's what everybody did--it
was like cooking in our house. I got hand-me-down cameras until I was
21 when I bought a Nikon."
Though art training was part of Rosenthal's life, she longed to
become affirmed in her own vision. Even as a premed student at Wellesley
College she kept returning to her photography. After graduation she
attended photography classes for two years at the Boston Museum School
and became interested in urban issues. Her first project was photographing
people in subways. "I found the figures isolated, lost in their
thoughts," she says, "and often sensed the alienation and
pain in their faces. I also photographed my first nude at the Museum
School and felt this kind of photography to be voyeuristic and loaded,
but without any point of view. I thought I would never photograph nudes.
But it is often those experiences with a strong impact, whether positive
or negative, that are most important and obviously in 1972 that affected
At the age of 27, Rosenthal became a "mermaid." She started
renting summer houses and discovered a passion for the water and swimming,
even getting her lifesaver's certificate. "Anything about
the water fascinated me," she says, "even the bathtub. I
began to observe the volume of my body in the tub--it was backlit with
light reflecting from a window so there was one event happening on the
surface of the water and another below it. Once I even filmed water
rushing over the rocks in New Hampshire, filming in slow motion and
when I projected it at home I slowed it down even more to the level
of `touch.' There was something primal and sensuous about
the water cascading over the rocks."
All was not smooth sailing for Rosenthal, however, and she remembers
how she cried herself to sleep one night, thinking, "there is
no photograph worth taking." But her longing hit a response. "There
is something in that dynamic of longing," she says, "and
it often happens that when I hit a wall, my own unique answer lies just
For example, while on vacation at a lake, a friend offered to model.
"I didn't want to take pictures in a lake--I wanted to take
them in the bathtub," she laughingly recalls. "It's
amazing how close you can come to not finding your path--how important
it is to remain open." As the model floated in the water, Rosenthal
turned her Rolleiflex upside-down, holding it over her head to get a
better angle. Suddenly the model was inverted--she was flying. "This
was the most important image I ever took," she says. "It
took two years to find the appropriate expression for the flying, floating
duality, a double print with the repeated figures locked into a parallelogram
"I had this gut sense that the flesh should in some way be the
equivalent density of water and I looked for overcast days that created
a kind of thickness on the water's surface," she explains.
"When I didn't have that thickness I would solarize, partially
developing the print, then re-exposing it so the lighter areas picked
up some tonality. This also gave me a white boundary effect and a high
contrast paper used for solarization brought out detail in the shadow
In '78, preoccupied more than ever with the relationships of organic
forms and the connection between art and nature, Rosenthal won a fellowship
from Wellesley College based on portraits she had done while working
at a home for the developmentally disabled as well as on her nudes.
She left to spend a year in Greece. "In Greece everything changed,"
she says. "There was always sunlight and I was living on islands
and much closer to nature. Light and shadow played on the mountains
and water and I loved the `God-light,' when streaks of sunlight
burst through the clouds onto the water. It seemed as if the sculptural
contours of the mountains seemed to drop into the sea and become animal
Nudity in Greece was considered a criminal offense and Rosenthal stayed
in protected areas so as not to get arrested even though she had a formal
letter explaining that her work was not pornography. Fortunately a German
woman gave her a place to stay that included a room with a boarded-up
window that became a natural darkroom. The house was four kilometers
from the sea and a newfound friend offered her an ancient rusted motorcycle
to get back and forth to the water.
"I was coming up with these flat, dull images and feeling hopeless,"
Rosenthal recalls. "A turning point came on a windy day with the
water moving. It was the last opportunity I had to work with three models
at once. That day I spotted a pool of water in the shallows of some
rocks and started backing away from my models, climbing up onto a rocky
ledge. The sun was low and reflecting onto the water, bouncing into
my camera and creating flare. I decided to hide the reflection behind
a rock. That was it--eureka. When I developed the film the water had
a silver tonality and light surrounded the figures. It was a natural
solarization. What I had done with chemicals I could now do with light.
On other days, however, when the light was perfect the horizon was lost
and the water almost evaporated into the sky in brilliant haziness."
Many images were quite abstract and under those perfect light conditions,
the body and the water were like alchemy. However, it takes extraordinary
conditions to make that happen and to give the silvery haze that makes
objects sculptural. "Observation is everything," Rosenthal
says. "Water has become my teacher and with the configuration
of water, body, and light there are things happening all the time that
suggest the connection between art and nature. I gave up trying to pre-construct
things years ago. What is in front of my eyes is always better than
anything I can pre-imagine. So I begin somewhere, then push in a direction
and usually see something incredible--something I couldn't possibly
In a series of landscapes taken in the Southwest and on Cape Cod Rosenthal
wondered...with so much landscape in her nudes would there be nudes
in her landscapes? She began to photograph body-like forms using the
rocks and the dunes. Often the landscapes are studies for the nudes
and in many images the land and the body offer a duality. In one shot
taken in a slot canyon in Arizona, Rosenthal photographed a sculpted
rock and the following day while photographing a model that was posed
by a sandstone bluff she saw the likeness in the two photographs. The
rock formations seemed related and the skin tones of her model reflected
the same orangy cast as she had seen in the natural elements of the
canyon the day before. "I shot from behind the model's shoulder,"
she recalls, "and the shadow and light showed the true connection.
I'm sure it was because it was keen in my vision from the day
before. After all, who would ever think to photograph a nude from behind
In '98 Rosenthal began a series of "puddle pictures"
that appear hand-tinted. With the sunlight reflecting in the shade these
reflections of a body in a little puddle resemble a fresco in the way
the image merges with the water. "I like to get some fusion of
the two as the sun erases the boundaries of the pool and creates an
ambiguity that provokes you to look again, to explore your vision and