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Bill Westheimer, A Photographer Who Gives Us Back The Heart of Mystery

Using 19th Century techniques to reveal the 21st century world

"I was working on light shows at Cincinnati's leading concert hall — for the 'Grateful Dead', the 'Allman Brothers,' B.B. King — I was 15, 16, I had to get my father to drive me there," acclaimed commercial and art photographer Bill Westheimer said in a recent conversation. 

"I was already captivated by photography and art — looking at images in nature books, going to museums, reading everything, learning from 'Popular Mechanics' and 'Popular Photography.' I was absorbing as much as I could, experimenting with photography and lasers to make holograms then."

The light show work was, well, a side light that ended when Bill came east from Ohio to study at Union College — he and his wife Lisa G. Westheimer, an accomplished ceramic artist, live in West Orange — but the interest in experimentation never did. Years later, Westheimer studied photograms and cibarchrome printing with Jerry Burchfield. He later learned collodion glass plate photography with Frances Scully and Mark Osterman; all experts in their fields.

Capturing light as image is Bill's lifetime work and passion. His corporate work appears on book covers, music packaging, advertising and editorial illustration. His art photography is in private collections, museums and galleries nationwide.

Passion is the key word here — "Bill's work evokes passionate, rapturous responses, certainly from me, from his fellow photographers and from those viewing his works.

Right now four of his giclee prints made from wet plate collodion negatives are on view through the end of this month at the not-to-be-missed "Depth of Field" show at the Gallery at the Montclair Public Library. The show is under the aegis of Studio Montclair, Inc., a not for profit artist collective.

Simply put, in an age when every cell phone is a camera and visual information bombards us everywhere we look, Bill, using both 19th century and modern technology, makes us rethink the world, to see the beauty and mystery in the everyday. He brings back a sense of wonder and gives us surprise, often from a fragment of the natural or made world.

He makes you look and think, and after some time spent with his work, you might never see a book or a discarded piece of rose cane or that fern that arrived with a floral bouquet in the same way. As seen in the picture gallery above and more fully on the artist's own website, a wilted fern becomes a Chinese dragon; the fanned out pages of a book, a ballet of flowers; and a section of the stem of a rose, a primeval mountain range reflected in water.

In a sense his photographs are visual play at a mystical level. They also make you laugh with the joy of discovery. His verbal wordplay makes you laugh, too — he named one of his books of photographs "Oddyessey, A Billiad."

Bill and I have enjoyed a number of conversations at area art exhibits this year and had a lengthy and wide ranging talk this week.

Q. Bill, what else would you like to say about your earlier study?

A. At Union College I was a Philosophy major but I also studied art and photography with Arnold Bittleman, an amazing guy who trained at Yale with Josef Albers and photographer Jay Maisel, who is now a friend. Bittleman was a brilliant teacher and mentor and visually very sophisticated, but the real mastery of photographic technique came with my experiments.

Q. What can you say about the techniques you mastered?

A.  With the photograms, where you are using light sensitive paper, much of the process is taking place in the dark room. I'm not looking at contact sheets from film or digital images on a computer: I am seeing 8" by 10" or even 20" by 24" images emerging in the moment. I have the opportunity to really stare at what I do. You can change things a little, try something a little different.

You can plan on serendipity. Sometimes I don't think it's there, but the Art Director on a commercial project says, "That's much better than anyone could expect … "

Q. You compare your process to improvisation, what can you say?

A. Yes, a jazz musician masters his technique and, of course, he knows the melody, but the really interesting part is in the improvisation. In general photographers are very controlling and control is important, you do have to master your process. But you also have to allow room for accident, if you don't, then the art becomes contrived and stiff.

I sometimes have an idea how it will go, but sometimes I am surprised. For example, with the fern, I was doing color shots of the fresh fern, but then it wilted in the process and the wilted fern became something else. With the book pages, I knew what I wanted. I went to my book shelf looking for a paperback of a certain size where I could fan the pages and cut the book into different widths. It was totally unintentional, but the book I used was titled "Available Light."

Q. The heart of art is really ambiguity, mystery, that's what distinguishes it from other image making. What do you want from the viewer?

A. Yes, most photography is too literal for me, it shows what exists. I want to show what I see, I want to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar, to ask a question and begin a dialogue with the viewer. I want to engage the viewer and bring their interpretation to the work.

Mr. Westheimer is planning small classes in 19th Century technique for the modern photographer in his West Orange darkroom and laboratory later this year. Contact him via www.billwest.com.  "Depth of Field" is on view through June 29 at the Montclair Public Library, 50 Fullerton Street. Hours are Mondays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, see www.studiomontclair.org or call (973) 744-1818

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