The atmosphere in Common Grounds has been, as of late, embellished by the sound of frog calls. These noises come in waves and are subtle enough that the listener may think that he or she is hearing things. However, upon further investigation, one can follow the sound to the dark, curtained entrance of the Margaret Martin Gehman Art Gallery. After pulling back the curtain, the source of these calls is located, and a new world is entered.
That world is “Vernal Pools: Life Just Below the Surface,” a four-year project of Steven David Johnson, conservation photographer and one of EMU’s own VACA professors. Johnson’s exhibit is smartly and beautifully done. Twenty-six vibrant displays make up the perimeter of the gallery, each providing a close glimpse into the biodiversity of shallow forest ponds, which, Johnson said, vary in width “from arm’s length to hundreds of feet.” Some of the displays are images of salamanders, frogs, newts, and other wildlife, all in incredible lighting and detail. There are also some extraordinary shots of egg masses. Several in particular show salamander embryos, curved fish-like shapes surrounded by blue film that seems to glow ethereally, poised in a state of both growth and vulnerability. It is photos like these, taken at a closeness that cannot be achieved without the use of specialized camera equipment, that almost have the look of an abstract painting.
Johnson does not only utilize static photography for his art; six of the pieces are monitors that show looped videos behind glass casing. According to Johnson, videos like this are “an extension of the stills, meant to almost seem like one at first.” One of the loops, a green frog, achieves exactly this, appearing to be a photo until the viewer notices that the “photographed” frog is breathing. The subtle motion of these loops, paired with the background noise of frog calls, adds a layer of immersive depth to the exhibit.
The aforementioned frog calls are actual forest recordings of Johnson’s that have been compiled into a soundscape by Composer-in-Residence and Assistant Professor Ryan Keebaugh. Most of the recordings, videos, and photos have been taken from the George Washington National Forest, one of Johnson’s favorite locations. “The amphibian diversity is amazing here. We have endemic salamander species that live on the Shenandoah Mountain ridge and nowhere else in the world,” says Johnson.
Interestingly, none of the exhibit pieces have labels attached to them. Instead, the titles are kept in separate guides located on gallery pedestals. This leaves the viewer to encounter each one directly, then consult the guide, as Johnson had to. It is Johnson’s hope that this type of experience will spark the same curiosity and appreciation that it did for him. Johnson says that he is happy if viewers like his pictures and videos, but happier if individuals can take away some meaning from his art exhibit. “If it actually changes them in some way, and they become more connected to the natural world around them, that’s important to me.”
The exhibit officially opened with an artist’s reception on Feb. 2. Stop by the Margaret Gehman Gallery to experience an impressive project that reveals art and science as one and the same.