Women In Photography
Karin Rosenthal--A Passion For The Human Form

"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 of tone.

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 them.

"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 me strongly."

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 behind it."

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 structure.

"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 areas."

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 forms."

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 have anticipated."

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 her shoulder?"

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 the illusion."