Joyce Tenneson, Photography’s Golden Girl

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   Joyce Tenneson is famous for her ethereal, romantic photographs of women, flowers, seashells, and now trees. She is one of the few serious photographers who dares to tackle obvious beauty in an age of ironic ugliness. I have long regarded her as the Andrew Wyeth of photography.

   Just as Wyeth painted as though the 20th century never happened, Tenneson is essentially a Victorian pictorialist in the 21st century. She is often described as a kindred spirit to pioneering British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), but where Cameron was very much an artist for her times, Tenneson (1945 – ) is a lovely anachronism, an American baby boomer who embraces the age of innocence.

Rockport Tree Reflections, gold leaf on wood, 2011

Currently (through May 4), the Lamont Gallery at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, is showing Joyce Tenneson: Selected Works: 2002-2011, an exhibition that includes glamorous portraits of older women from her 2002 bestseller Wise Women, portraits of flower blossoms from her 2004 Intimacy: The Sensual Essence of Flowers, and a selection from her latest Trees of Life series.

   Just as Tenneson photographs women not with frank honesty but with a sentimental sense of misty, magical elegance, her new tree photographs are printed in gold leaf, lifting them out of the realm of the natural into that of the mystical. Her pictures of golden trees are so reverential and precious that one almost expects a unicorn to appear.

Fountain and Birches, gold leaf on wood, 2011

Tenneson, born in Boston, attributes some of her affinity for myth and ritual, as well as the secret life of women, to the fact that she grew up on the grounds of a convent in Weston, Massachusetts, where her parents worked. She now lives and works in New York and Rockport, Maine, where she is popular and influential teacher at the Maine Media Workshops.

   Last year, Down East Books published a book of her seashell photographs entitled Shells: Nature’s Exquisite Creations. In July, the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, Maine, will mount an exhibition of Tenneson’s new gold leaf tree photographs.

   There is no denying that Joyce Tenneson is a very accomplished, successful, and respected fine art photographer, but, as you may have caught from the drift of my words, I have a hard time appreciating the gossamer beauty of her work. She talks about her art holding a mirror up to the world, but what she sees reflected in it strikes me as unreal, a kind of Glamour Shots version of reality.

Circle of reflections gold-leaf on wood, photograph 2011 © Joyce Tenneson

Tenneson’s promotional biographies often note that she was named one of the ten most influential women in the history photography in an American Photo readers’ poll. That was back in 1998, but nonetheless it surprises me. So I did the exercise for myself, listing the most influential women in the history of photography I could think of – Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Julia Margaret Cameron, Imogen Cunningham, Nan Goldin, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Annie Liebowitz, Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Tina Modotti, Barbara Morgan, Inga Morath, Cindy Sherman – and I got up to 16 without reaching Joyce Tenneson.

   Top 20 maybe. Top 10 no. A great chance to see new work by the golden girl of photography though.

[Lamont Gallery, Phillips Exeter Academy, 11 Tan Lane, Exeter NH, 603-777-3461.]

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