Exhibit shows haunting shots of photographer’s life

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Rosel Mandel Archive/Courtesy

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“I am the flower, but I am also the thorn,” said 20th-century nature photographer Rose Mandel. This dualistic and prolific statement is just one of the many insights into the complex mind of the Polish-born Mandel (1910-2002), whose series of photographs titled “The Errand of the Eye” is currently being featured at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Mandel, who grew up Jewish in World War II Poland, fled to the United States in 1942. Though she immigrated to New York at first, she relocated to the Bay Area where she befriended Ansel Adams, Minor White and Richard Diebenkorn. There, she refined her artistic style and developed her own understanding of photography through her previous experience with psychology and art, both of which she had studied in Europe.

Mandel uses these various sources of inspiration to create work that is both perceptive and challenging. Though she may be well-known for her experience with mostly nature shots, her de Young exhibit also features gritty urban scenes, haunting portraits and seemingly futuristic photographs of modern machinery.

Though all-encompassing in terms of subject matter, Mandel’s photographs do have a common style that weaves the individual works together — a style that can be defined as lonesome, delicate and still. A sense of darkness pervades her prints, as if a strange force is lurking within the shots.

One such photograph is a small black-and-white still of dying aloe branches. The crisscrossing lines are dramatically disorienting, which is made clear because Mandel saw the composition as a “visualization of human slaughter and the Holocaust.”

An equally eerie photograph is an untitled piece taken in 1946. It reveals an isolated, white bassinet in the center of the photo, but no signs of life emanate from the carriage. This photograph is proof that Mandel’s background in psychology influenced her artistic career. The darkness and stillness reflect Mandel’s personal losses such as people she knew during the Holocaust and her lack of children.

Though Mandel’s photographs penetrate her own psyche most often, they also reveal more about a person than is readily available with a single glance. The artist’s skilled portrait work delves beneath the superficial and does not rely on setting to attract the viewer’s attention. Instead, the portraits are honest and organic, odd and almost accidental, reaching into the souls of the subjects.

It should be noted that the exhibition’s title, “The Errand of the Eye,” refers to a series of nature photographs that Mandel took in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This eponymous collection, which was first exhibited at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor about 59 years ago, is a sequence of tiny gelatin silver prints illustrating the most subtle of nature’s wonders: a small thorn, petite seeds, bare tree branches. These reflections of nature meditate on feelings of stillness and space that are inherent even in denser pieces that feature entangled vegetation or ambiguous water scenes.

The title itself pays homage to a line in the Emily Dickinson poem “Whether my bark went down at sea,” a mystical poem that tells the story of a ghostly boat sailing the ocean. Mandel’s series of photos invokes a similar mood to the one conjured here by Dickinson — one of an evocative, imaginary presence.

The spatial ambiguity and discord of Mandel’s works, especially her multiple exposures, fit perfectly with the haunting elements of Dickinson’s poem. Like the poem’s enchanted ship, Rose Mandel’s photographs — whether they be urbanscapes, natural shots or portraits — are mystic, moving and perfectly uncertain.