Despite being born in Washington, D.C., growing up in Potomac and living in Paris for a few years, Barbi “BD” Richardson chose the rural life. “I love nature and being in the country,” said the photographer who has lived in Boyds since the 1980s.
Richardson’s allegiance to the rural is reflected in the exhibit “Vanishing,” on view through Jan. 6 at the Open Gallery in The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center on Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. Twenty-two black-and-white photographs, ranging in size from 12 by 16 inches to 28 by 34 inches, “document the iconic yet vanishing rural landscapes of North America,” Richardson said, with locations “spanning the continent from the Chesapeake Bay to New England and from the Rocky Mountains to Canada, and places in-between.”
Over the course of several years, “I went looking for these landscapes, and when you are looking, you see them everywhere,” said Richardson, who noted she had spotted a couple more during an excursion to Frederick just that day. Equipped with her Canon DSL reflex camera, she made most of her exploratory trips solo because each site can require hours of work, which she figured would likely bore anyone accompanying her. “Sometimes I take just a few shots because I know I have it right away,” she said. “Other times, depending on the lighting and the angles, I can take hundreds.”
“Vanishing” is the second of four shows chosen from among some 33 proposals for exhibits expressing or relating to the theme, “Time: Entropy and Change.” “The concept of entropy is often defined as nature’s tendency to move from order to disorder,” Department of Visual and Performing Arts’ Professor Claudia Rousseau wrote in a call for artists for the 2016-17 academic year. “Other ideas associated with entropy are: a lack of predictability, change in condition or appearance and gradual decline over time into disintegration or dissolution. In nature, this phenomenon is seen in the slow degradation of elements such as stone or wood, or in a myriad of other possibilities. Time is the key to both entropy and change, whether in nature or in human lives.”
When Richardson learned of the theme, she immediately knew her photographs would fit the bill. “Nothing says change more than these vanishing foundations of our past,” Richardson observed. “Wooden grain elevators and silos are being replaced by industrial storage facilities; deteriorating barns will never be rebuilt. Churches, once the lynchpin of communities are now left abandoned. Rural homes are often pre-fab structures today, and watermen’s shacks and fishing docks are disappearing altogether.”
“The committee was very impressed with Barbi’s work, and felt, as do I, that her photos documenting the vanishing rural landscapes of North America were an especially evocative take on expressing this theme,” Rousseau recalled. “Her technique of exceptionally long exposures that capture subtle movements in plants and especially the clouds that, in some cases, seem to sweep across the sky, is exquisitely handled and seem to connote the passage of time in each scene.”
Richardson said she keeps the lens open for extended periods of one to four minutes, or longer to achieve “the effect of capturing the movement of the clouds, rendering them soft and blurred or radiating in various directions, depending on the wind and the movement as well as the cloud structure at the time the image was taken.”
The symbolism of the moving clouds seemed an ideal fit for the theme announced in the call for artists. “These moving clouds symbolize time moving forward in the face of the ephemeral lifespan of these vanishing structures and the rich history they represent,” Richardson explained.
Rousseau was particularly impressed by Richardson’s “unusual process of printing the digitally captured images onto film, and then transferring the film images onto aged metal plates, giving these images an aged appearance, as though one is seeing something actually degrading in front of you, and the beauty that is possible even in the state of abandon and brokenness that most of the vanishing structures in her photos have reached. The black-and-white images take on a silvery glow on their metal supports also connoting that sense of something literally disappearing as we see it.”
Richardson used an alcohol-based emulsion transfer method and archival pigment inks to print the images on the film and then transferred them to aged metal plates. The result is “reminiscent of old tintypes,” she said. “The transfers are done totally by hand and no two are ever quite the same.” Richardson, who described her approach variously as “involved, very time-consuming, and (a function of) trial and error,” believes it is “perfect for photos of old decaying structures.” For other projects, she may use base materials like fine art papers, wood or glass.
The frames Richardson used for the “Vanishing” photographs are distinctive as well. “Barbi has surrounded all the images in this show in heavy wooden frames made from old found wood,” Rousseau said. More precisely, Richardson said the frames are created from “original old barn wood, custom crafted in upstate New York.” Although not everyone approves of the frames,” Rousseau “thinks they add much to the installation of the show overall, separating the images from the crisp white walls on which they hang. And that idea of age is reinforced by the texture and look of them.”
Richardson, daughter of the late Cozy Baker–known for her amazing collection of kaleidoscopes and for founding the Montgomery County-based Brewster Society for kaleidoscope enthusiasts–earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies (“I am fluent in Spanish and love the culture and the language.”) from George Washington University and a master’s in journalism and public affairs (“I wrote for a magazine in Paris, but I preferred the photographic aspect.”) from American University.
After marrying an Army officer, Richardson lived in Paris—where she had her first photography exhibit–and West Point prior to coming back to Montgomery County, where the couple started a business and a family. As a result of those new responsibilities, Richardson felt it was not “my time” to for serious photography, but in the early 2000s, “I got into it with a passion,” she said. “Technological advances make this a great time to be a photographer. In the digital dark room, creativity and what you can do are limitless.”
Among her multiple bodies of work, Richardson is doing abstracts “more and more,” often shooting very close-up and creating multiple exposures. “It’s fun to experiment,” she said, noting that her colorful abstracts echo her mother’s kaleidoscopes. In addition, having found the undeveloped photographs she took in Paris in the 1980s, she digitized all the negatives and is working on the “now vintage” street scenes.
D.C.’s Touchstone Gallery and The Torpedo Factory’s Gallery 75 represent Richardson’s work. Among her recent honors were two Silver Awards in the Prix de la Photographie Paris for “The Church with No Flock” and “If These Walls Could Talk,” first place in the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution national competition, both in 2016; and an Excellence Award from Black & White Magazine and First Place for “Rainy Morning at Fells Point” from Chesapeake Bay Magazine, both in 2015.
The Open Gallery is on the ground floor of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center, 930 King St., Silver Spring, on the west side of Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. Call 240-567-5821 or visit http://cms.montgomerycollege.edu/arts-tpss/exhibitions. View this exhibition on CultureSpotMC here.