When is a stairway not a mere stairway?
The question is answered in “Fleeting Light,” an exhibition of the recent photography of Alex Nyerges on view through July 23 at the Reynolds Gallery satellite at 401 Libbie Ave. Nyerges is known to many as the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. During the past 40 years, though, he’s also pursued the practice of art photography.
“When I see something that inspires me,” Nyerges explains, “I think in black and white.”
On occasion, however, the circumstances inspire him otherwise. He describes the origin of “El Segundo Color II,” made during a January 2020 pre-pandemic gathering of family at a restaurant. A sudden burst of fading sunlight barreled down a staircase across from where they were sitting.
“The color was magical,” Nyerges recalls. He crossed to the other side of the room to gain a perspective on the light, which by then tended toward jade. “The people working at the restaurant must’ve wondered what I was doing, ‘It’s a stairway.’ But I wanted to capture that momentary beauty.”
After the light moved, the beguiling factors vanished.
He often takes many pictures of the same scene, over and over. “No two photographs, even of the same subject, are ever the same,” Nyerges says. “The variables are numerous: The season, time of day and, especially along the river where I often take these pictures, the water levels, the weather and environment play an important role.”
A case in point is his mysterious black-and-white “James River Fog II,” a 40-by-60-inch image depicting Blackbird Island across from the American Civil War Museum. To some, this island may resemble a great ghost sailing ship, the leafless trees as masts, and the bow emerging from fog. It is a trick of an eye tuned to light and atmosphere.
“The image you see when you’re looking at it through the lens is not the image that shows up on the negative in its raw form,” Nyerges says.
Characteristics appear that perhaps one didn’t see when the shutter snapped; an errant leaf (that can be removed before printing), or a man sitting in a camp chair resembling to Nyerges a Renaissance church cardinal amid the tangle of a James River island (he stayed in the final picture).
Nyerges’ day job often requires international travel. He knows the streets of Beijing as he is familiar with paths along the James River. Wherever he is, what matters is a certain moment viewed in a discerning manner.
“Light differs, atmospheric conditions vary, the time of day — though most of my work is in the morning,” Nyerges says. If he’s image-taking at a later hour, the circumstances involve the play of contrast and shadows, and the photographer chases fleeting light.