Spirit of Place: Hand-Painted Photographs by Maria Muller

Pucker Gallery
Aug 5, 2016 7:51PM

Maria Muller’s hand-painted photographs evoke the spirit of place through her personal and deliberate use of color, one of the artist’s most fundamental tools. In her travels, from young adulthood to present day, Muller takes pictures constantly to visually document what she sees in often unfamiliar places. Her choice of color is influenced by a variety of elements including instinct, a vivid and active imagination and a subtle but often sardonic sense of humor. Whether close to home or on the opposite side of the world, it is the contrast between the realism of her black and white photography and the whimsical, fantastical vibrant color that transports viewers to a world altered by color and imbued with spirit of place.

Hand-painted photography a technique that in its infancy was used to add color to a black and white image when color photography did not yet exist. This 19th century method of hand painting was exceedingly subtle; the application of colored pigments would only slightly tint the surface of a uniformly grey image. Muller’s approach to hand painted photography, however, aims to saturate the surface of the photographic paper with color. Her process begins with infrared film—a film that is sensitive to light in a way that alters the black and white tones in the negative. For example, skin tones and foliage appear much lighter in photographs taken with infrared film than if the same subject were photographed with standard film. 

Muller develops, processes, and prints the film in a darkroom in the basement of her Medford home. She selects the images she deems worthy of hand painting and begins this process at the drafting table in her studio. The images are colored by applying thin layers of translucent oil pigment with cotton swabs and then smoothed with tissue paper to create a flawless surface. Once Muller achieves the proper color, she will often embellish the painted photographs with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of enamel dots applied with a tiny brush. The effect is that of a different kind of pointillism, one that provides a dizzying, visual texture felt keenly by the viewer’s eye. The result of this lengthy, often tedious, process is a surreal and lushly-colored image that bears little resemblance to the original black and white photograph.  

Muller's fascination with color is particularly conducive to travel and the exploration of foreign locales. In 1994, a trip to a series of small towns around Cordoba, Spain presented Muller with a vivid and variegated area of the world that is an enchanting amalgamation of history, art and architecture. The buildings in these towns are simultaneously Moorish, Mediterranean and Spanish and Muller is able to capture this unique melding of cultures in her coloring of their facades. 

In Dove, Spain two buildings overtake the background: the stuccoed architecture may be the same color in reality but Muller chooses to distinguish them more markedly, perhaps exaggerating the warmth and luminosity of the city and its culture.  One is painted a warm cinnamon tone, the other in a slightly lighter hue, almost the color of sand.  A slip of baby blue sky pokes out from between the two structures hinting at the day’s magnificent weather and bathing the viewer in the warmth of the European sunshine.  The fronds from an enormous palm tree droop lazily into the image from above reminding us that although we sit in this courtyard that bustles with activity and life throughout the day we are only a breath away from the beach and the sea. 

In 1994, Muller also traveled to Botswana, Africa on a safari through the Kalahari Desert. As can be expected on such a journey, a new element entered Muller’s work: wild animals that the artist had never encountered before, and would probably never see again. These animals in their natural habitat provided Muller with the opportunity to bring her unique, often humorous, manipulation of color to an arid landscape that is otherwise monotone, muted by intense desert sunlight and intensified by infrared photography. In Red Lechwe Herd, the deathly parched landscape has been manipulated to include some muted greens, a color that will not grace this part of the world for many more months. Although photographed during daylight hours, the sky carries the blush colors of a romantic desert sunset. Humor rewards those looking closely; the lechwe staring curiously at the caravan of safari-goers and into the lens of Muller’s camera have undergone a small make-over complete with flirty, elongated eyelashes like those found on a doll.

Some of Muller’s more recent travels have taken her to South Beach in Florida, a place where color in reality nearly matches that of the artist’s imagination. The breezy, pastel hues of the building in Monstera Palm and Portholes, South Beach capture the warmth and vigor that imbues life in the Miami neighborhood. The hot fuchsia and juicy tangerine used to paint the drapes that hang in the windows present a sharp contrast to the muted turquoise of the building’s facade. The contrast of searing pinks and oranges with cool ocean blues recall the nightlife of South Beach alongside the endless stretches of sandy beach.

Muller’s travels need not always take her to an exotic locale. In 2006 Muller traveled to photograph the Arnold Arboretum just south of Boston. At the time of Muller’s visits the trees that populate the Arboretum were still in their winter garb. In One Birch, Three Trees and Carmine Bushes, four trees dominate the composition, a single white tree in the foreground, three rose colored trees stand behind.  The web-like pattern of branches and stems is skeletal, causing the trees to taken on a human quality, like a parent presiding over three mischievous children.  Grass and leaves have been colored emerald and lime, a clumping of flowering bushes are hot pink and the sky is crystal clear and blue.  These colors are all premature at this time of year at the Arboretum and are depictions of the artist’s imagination, but also perhaps her dreams of the warmer, more verdant springtime just a few weeks away.

Whether photographing in Africa or the Arnold Arboretum, Spain or Miami Beach, Maria Muller’s hand painted photography captures the spirit of place and treats our eyes and minds to the depiction of a transformed world altered by the artist’s profound understanding of and sensitivity to color.  Her hand painted images transport us to new locations that are vibrant and pulsate with the color and detail that exist only in the artist’s imagination. 

—Elizabeth B. Burgess

Pucker Gallery