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New Tools, New Boundaries, New Art: Gregory Conniff's 'Watermarks'

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Greg Conniff and The Museum of Wisconsin Art
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Gregory Conniff, Watermarks, Archival inkjet print, 2015

Madison photographer Greg Conniff was not in the market to prepare, shoot and organize another exhibit. The award-winning artist was shooting images for pleasure and was content to take the occasional commission. 

But Graeme Reid, the curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, convinced him to do another.  So Conniff decided to challenge himself: he decided to photograph in color rather than in his traditional black-and-white, he worked in digital for the first time rather than in film, he used a camera and lens he’d never worked with before, and he did it all in about 4 months.

The quite spectacular result is the show, “Watermarks,” which is on view at the museum in West Bend through June 19th

Conniff focused his new tools and techniques on a single subject: a reflecting pool at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. He frequented the gardens from April 2015 to October 2015,  taking more than 2500 photos. Most of the shots were taken during the last month he spent there.

Conniff explains that it ordinarily takes him a while, sometimes as long as 10 years, to develop a negative and make it into a print. "Because, for one thing, the first time I look at pictures that I've made recently, they look like garbage to me," he admits.

This project required something much different, says Reid. "We really took Greg way out of his comfort zone on this one, because...[the] turnaround to produce the content of this was so short."

Part of the beauty of looking at the 40-plus-prints displayed in the exhibit comes from finding abstraction in reality. Conniff's friend and colleague David Travis, who is also the recently retired Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, says about the photos, "you see the tail end of a leaf, or something that's making a gesture. If you were honest, you'd say 'I didn't see that to start with, and now I know to look for it.'"

This is all part of Conniff's plan. "I like being in that point where it's coherent, and you know it's coherent, but you don't know exactly what it is. You get closer to it, and it remains coherent, but shifts from what you thought it was before."

You can view and download an ebook of "Watermarks" here.

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.