Light Mystery
Creative Images By David Carrino

New York photographer David Carrino left the city environment where he was raised and over the past two years has lived in New England where he has developed a profound relationship with nature through his camera. A walk in the woods or over the dunes becomes a world of wonder as his lens slowly and darkly records the quiet places. In some images the grasses are overgrown and light filters through trees to form a pattern in the foreground. In others a myriad of footprints in the sand dunes give depth to shadows within the photograph yet leave no clues as to who has walked there.

In his landscapes or portraits the subject appears as if a light box or scrim was placed in the background, seeping mysteriously through the image. The natural world becomes translucent, the image often drawn right to the edge of obscurity.

Carrino's images are black and white. The light is natural and low level. Portrait subjects are lit through a window or a skylight and landscapes are shot at the critical moment before the sun goes down. In one image a lush growth of roses are at their peak, bursting at the very edge before they begin to decay. Petals in the background barely whisper and we need to look hard to see them. Everything is dense, two-dimensional, without horizon. The effect is one of mystery.

Carrino is a painter and a photographer, a combination no longer rare. He also edits and curates the work of other artists who hire him for his unerring eye in selecting and putting together their exhibitions. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1981, Carrino has followed this dual career in art since his high school years. Speaking of his development as a photographer, he says, "The happy mistakes I used to make, like graying or fogging an image, I can now do consciously. I have mastered my exposures so that the darkroom manipulation is minimal and fortunately I have a very highly skilled printer in New York with whom I have worked for 10 years."

Portraits and landscapes relate through their quiet ambiguity and sense of solitude. In selecting models for his portraits Carrino has sought out the same intimate relationships he seeks in his landscapes. "I need to become close with what I photograph," he says. "My portrait models are friends, people close to me. They are personal photographs, softly lit in natural light and usually taken within the model's own environment."

Rather than trying to manipulate the lighting Carrino manipulates his own position, he says, changing it in terms of how he has placed his subject. The expressive images create a story. In one, a young man with a long, classical nose drapes his hand over a chair. He is a restorer of Renaissance paintings and here in his studio, though the paintings in the background are not readily evident, he is a reflection of what he does. "Mary" reclines curled up in a hammock, (as shown on contents page) head thrown back, laughing. She is a performer, a cabaret singer of the classics from the '30s and '40s. (The bucolic landscape behind her would please Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart.)

Using an old 21/4 Rolleiflex camera and Tri-X film, all of the prints are done on paper that is glossy enough to capture the detail yet soft and warm toned enough to maintain the nostalgic presence Carrino desires. "I want to re-create my experience," he says, "to have it be directly the same as it was when I took the picture." The camera is handheld and Carrino says he has discovered that using a tripod with low-level light and creating a long exposure ironically seems to let more light into his picture and obscures the reality of what he is seeing. "It disrupts the idea that there is a layer of veiling between me and my subject," he says. "The low-level light creates a mystery that will make the images slowly open up to my viewers so they will spend time with them rather than `boom--I got it--I'm on to the next one.'"

Carrino spoke of a particular portrait of a tree. It is an ageless image, placed almost dead center in the photograph among tall grasses and wild growth and was taken on a property where he worked as a landscaper throughout the winter, spring, and following summer. "It was a big property with a creek behind it and all winter I cleared brush and cut down everything from crawling wisteria vines to trees," he recalls. "The tree was so beautiful even though it was bare in the cold months. By summer it became a huge canopy that shaded the area. To catch the light I shot at 1/4 of a second, exposing for the shadows like I was taught in school. By the way, though that concept, `expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights,' seems so simple, it may take a while to understand it. Beginning photographers tend to focus only on their subject that may be something like my interestingly textured tree. What they will learn as they continue to photograph is to pay attention to everything around the subject and become aware of what is happening in every corner."

The tree image to which Carrino refers was taken during the height of summer and shows a blooming branch creeping in from the lower left-hand corner and creating a diagonal meeting with the foliage on the upper right side of the photograph. The design creates a sense of life and movement to what could have been a static, dull picture. "Had I simply focused on the tree and not included those branches, the negative area in the lower left corner would have been boring," he explains. Composition, composition, composition.

"My brother is just beginning to photograph and he couldn't understand why his peppers didn't look like Edward Weston's peppers," Carrino says with a grin. "It's good to look and to emulate the masters. That's a good starting point. But it takes time to develop that eye of Weston's and I believe a photographer needs to spend a lot of time with his subject and let an image unfold.

"I have been told there is a sense of something old, Victorian perhaps, an `Alice in Wonderland' feeling to my photographs," says Carrino. There is also the kind of childhood dream one might have of being lost in a dense thicket. These are not sentimental images in any way. What Carrino is trying to capture are the places in our culture that are disappearing. The photographs might have been taken a hundred years ago. There is that element of timelessness and drama.

The natural light is sympathetic with Carrino's imagery. "Natural light for me," he says, "is the most flattering light for portraits and landscapes. I use it because it is the light my mentors have used so well, Andre Kertesz, Peter Hujar, and August Sander. It gives my work the sort of 19th century look I am after. Some of my favorite photographs are of Civil War battlefields taken a year or two after the battle ended. There are no bodies, yet you know what has happened. These are places where photographers came with their big view cameras to document a site and the title always told where it was and what had happened there. Yet there are no monuments. All that remains is a memory, an essence, a sense of place. And that is what I look for in my photographs."

In Carrino's latest work he is using found images, portraits from magazines or movie stills, and combining them in collage form with his own landscape images. "What I like about this new work," he says, "is that I have a complete picture in my mind when I shoot the landscape, a narrative in a sense." I have only done about a half a dozen pieces of this work so far but they are becoming a way of exploring my own psyche with my camera."

The new images are based on an ominous incident where two young women were murdered many years ago in a small town in Massachusetts. Carrino walked through what he called "an unbelievably beautiful, lushly grown path" to the huge clearing where the crime took place. "It has been so long after the fact and I was curious to see what may still linger there of the event.

"Strangely enough, regardless of the story behind it all, the photographer comes out with his or her own `stuff.' We invest a place with our own emotions that become in a way, a self-portrait, imbuing the place we photograph with our own feelings and ideas about what may have taken place. Imagine--making a landscape that is a self-portrait."