Colombe d’Or is one of Sally Gall’s earliest photographs, created just three years after her graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design. As a result, it is an interesting and valuable piece, for while it does not seem to fit with her later work in terms of subject matter, it does display many of the stylistic and compositional techniques that would become Gall’s hallmarks. The image is of a section of an outdoor pool that fills almost the entire picture frame and appears to extend further out into the space occupied by the viewer, thus serving to draw the eye into the scene. In the left foreground, there are two circular life preserver rings floating in the pool, and in the right foreground, there is a large ripple with approximately four expanding rings that is moving outward from an unseen center point toward the middle of the pool. There are five low-slung lounge chairs positioned around the edge of the pool, two of which have unidentifiable figures resting on them. Behind the resting figures, there seems to be a small building, as well as a large, ivy-covered wall that surrounds the pool and a staircase mostly hidden by shadows, which gives the piece a sense of ambiguity and intrigue.
Sally Gall has become known for creating mysterious and evocative images of the natural world. As she writes on her website, "For 30 years I have photographed the beauty and mystery of the natural world - its elemental and sometimes terrifying aspects, its silence, its persistence. To immerse viewers in a visceral and sensual contemplation of nature and our place within it, I have taken as subjects gardens, cultivated fields, swimmers, jet contrails and power lines, the twilight zone in caves, blossoming trees, and the ground level kingdom of things that creep and crawl" (Gall, Biography). When seen through this lens, Colombe d’Or would seem to present an interesting challenge, as it is an image of something man-made – a swimming pool – by an artist who is best known for her focus on nature. Yet when compared to Gall’s body of work, it becomes clear that this piece shares many similarities with her other images. One of Gall’s trademarks is her use of black and white soft focus photography, which she deploys to atmospheric effect in Colombe d’Or. The image as a whole has a hazy quality to it, as if everything is just slightly out of focus. As writer James Salter explains in his introduction to Gall’s book, The Water’s Edge, “Sally Gall has said that she prefers to obliterate the detail, to isolate the image completely” (6). Only objects in the immediate foreground are sharply defined, such as the life preserver closest to the viewer, while the rest of the shapes are soft and indistinct around the edges. This creates an almost abstract effect, as the forms of the objects, rather than the objects themselves, become more visible. The strong vertical and horizontal lines of the implied rectangle of the pool become almost more important than the pool itself, while the two figures resting on lounge chairs become simply more horizontal lines rather than actual people.
This soft focus effect, when combined with the black and white color scheme, is crucial to the viewer’s interpretation of the piece. Gall’s choice to combine these techniques transform what could have been a simple photograph of a day by the pool into one of her “sensual interpretations of nature” (“Sally Gall,” Saul Gallery), with its serene, yet melancholy and mysterious air. The limited palette allows the viewer to imagine a number of theories as to what the piece is about. It could be an image of a sleepy, quiet summer day by the pool, or there could be something more ominous implied in that same stillness. Water, one of Gall’s favorite subjects, can be both welcoming and dangerous. The presence of the life preservers reinforce this dichotomy, as does the large ripple in the foreground, which implies that there has been a human presence in the pool just before the photograph was taken. The viewer is not sure whether someone just entered or exited the pool, thus increasing the number of possible interpretations of the scene. Adding to the many mysteries of the work is the title of the piece. The literal translation of Colombe d’Or is ‘golden dove,’ which has no apparent connections with the subject matter, and reveals nothing about the location of the scene, thus further widening the array of potential meanings for the piece.
While many of Gall’s later images portray the natural world in its infinite variety, from mountaintops to the smallest insects, Colombe d’Or presents a different view of nature. The swimming pool can be seen as a symbol of human presence and manipulation of one of the most basic natural elements - water. The containment of the water in fact foreshadows the evidence of human manipulation visible in some of her early photographs of European formal gardens, such as Blenheim, also from 1980. As Gall writes on her website, “I photograph with an ever deepening appreciation for how this "place" shapes us, even as we shape it with our passage" (Gall, Biography), revealing her interest in how human presence impacts nature and vice versa. Although these works are overt examples of human attempts to control and constrain the natural world, even Gall’s images of such seemingly unstudied scenes as mountains, rivers or lakes, appear to be rigorously composed. There is never an element included that disrupts the scene, thus indicating that great thought has gone into the composition of the image. For example, the two life preservers and single large ripple in Colombe d’Or both seem deliberately staged. This compositional tension reflects the balance between subject matter and style that is a constant presence in Gall’s work. An example of this in her later work can be seen in Canoe, from 1992, where the boat is perfectly situated as to lead the viewer’s eye into the image, which depicts a glassy, calm pond with mountains framed in the background. The inclusion of the canoe also reflects Gall’s interest in including a human element in her works and exploring the intersection of humanity and nature.
Most reviews and promotional materials associated with Gall’s photographs tend to use the same kinds of adjectives when attempting to describe her work. One gallery mentions her “sensual interpretations of nature . . . with her rigorous yet romantic vision” (“Sally Gall,” Saul Gallery), while another highlights her “focus on the simplicity and beauty that nature inspires” (“Sally Gall: Subterranea”). Yet another gallery mentions Gall’s “powerful and yet subtle use of metaphor and symbolism . . . her unique vision which stir[s] our deeper sense of spiritual connection with nature” (“Sally Gall,” Tristan’s Gallery). The clear thread running through all of these commentaries is the way Gall’s work focuses on depicting the natural world in unique and sometimes unexpected ways. As a result, it seems that many who have examined Gall’s work are more taken with their subject matter than their style. However, upon further study, the two ideas may be closely linked, as Colombe d’Or exemplifies how Gall’s photographs tell a potentially complex story belied by the initial simplicity of the image. In this image, the viewer sees a tranquil and inviting scene. But on closer examination, many questions are raised with regards to: what is happening beyond the frame of the photograph that cuts off a full view of the pool, why there are two life preservers floating peacefully on the surface of the water, and what exists beyond the ivy-covered walls that surround the scene?
A brief article in The New York Times mentions Gall using “Pictorialist devices, including soft focus and warm print tones” (Hagen) in her work, and it is this mention of Pictorialism that serves to provide a deeper understanding of Gall’s synthesis of subject, style and technique. Pictorial photography is a style of photography based on the application of principles of fine art, specifically those ideas of beauty and nature that originated with the Picturesque (“Pictorial”). The style was most popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Kasebier tried to achieve Impressionistic effects through the use of soft-focus lenses and screens to blur images (“Pictorial”). Pictorialism was considered to be the first international photographic movement and it remained popular from the late 1800s until the advent of World War I, when photography moved in a more abstract direction. The concepts of “misty romanticism and [the] ideal of intrinsic beauty” (“Pictorial”) that were so important in Pictorial photography can also be applied to Sally Gall’s work. Her photographs, as exemplified by Colombe d’Or, use similar soft focus and blurring techniques to create evocative images that leave their meaning unclear and up for interpretation by the viewer. Gall uses photographic techniques to enhance and add to her subject matter - an image of a swimming pool, such as in Colombe d’Or, runs the risk of seeming trite or banal when done in color, but the choice of a black and white palette done in soft focus completely changes the tone of the piece to one of evocative melancholy and mystery. It lends a sense of timelessness and lack of grounding in a specific place that allows the viewer to join in the moment and respond to the image from their own experience.
While Pictorialism may not be a particularly well-known style of photography today, it is nevertheless one that captures the essence of Sally Gall’s photographs. Her explorations of nature in its various forms and settings reflect the Pictorialist focus on composition and photography as an art form. Colombe d’Or introduces Gall’s interest in presenting the natural world as a place that influences our lives while we affect it as well with our presence. It presents the solitude of the natural world that is evoked in many of her natural images and demonstrates her fascination with creating seemingly simple images that contain layers of complexity and potential meaning, which would become a great focus of her work in the early 21st century. In Colombe d’Or, Sally Gall creates a powerful and evocative image that captures much of her distinct style and masterful technique.
Gall, Sally. Biography. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
Hagen, Charles. “Art in Review.” The New York Times. 18 Dec. 1992.
“Pictorial Photography.” Oxford Art Online. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
“Sally Gall.” Saul Gallery. Last edited August 5, 2010. Web. 23 Nov.
“Sally Gall.” Tristan’s Gallery. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
“Sally Gall: Subterranea.” Edelman Gallery. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
Salter, James and Sally Gall. The Water’s Edge. San Francisco: Chronicle
Books, 1995. Print.
Born in 1956, Sally Gall attended Reed College before earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography in 1978 from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, Rhode Island. Since then, she has received several prestigious fellowships and grants, including two MacDowell Colony Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist’s Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency. Her work resides in various museum collections, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and has been covered and reviewed in publications such as Aperture and Art in America. She also has had many solo and group shows, including seven solo exhibitions at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York City. Gall has published two books, The Water’s Edge in 1995 and Subterranea in 2005, both dealing with natural themes and aspects of nature, the former focusing on bodies of water and the latter exploring caves and the twilight space between light and dark. Colombe d’Or was created only a few years after Gall graduated from RISD, and is an early experiment with the nature-focused style that would become her signature. Today, she lives and works in New York City as a fine art photographer, an editorial and advertising landscape and lifestyle photographer, as well as a photography teacher.
Gall, Sally. Biography. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.