Seeing the old through a new lens

A graduate student uses photography to explore the mystery of myth

Don M. Burrows

The woman stares wistfully from a grainy black-and-white photograph. She holds an open book, its pages barely legible.

The image is at once archetypal and contemporary. Only the title – “Calliope” – hints that the figure is a representation of the Greek muse of epic poetry.

Today, when virtually every Renaissance print is stocked in retail stores, mythology requires a fresh look. One University student captures it in subtle, yet captivating photographs.

Johanna Shreve, a graduate student in the department of classical and near eastern studies, has turned an undergraduate class photography project into an increasingly profitable endeavor.

Her work, a sequence of surreal photographs harkening biblical and classical mythology, is being shown at the Art Major gallery in Minneapolis. Its mysterious appeal has already attracted one contract for additional work.

“At first I just looked online for myths and oil paintings, and then I came up in my head with what I wanted it to look like,” Shreve said. “I basically wanted to make it as mysterious as possible.”

That mystery comes, in part, from Shreve’s technique. She uses no studio equipment and relies solely on focusing tricks, choice film selections and developing techniques.

Her attempts captured the attention of Cynthia Jaksa, of International Falls, Minn. After seeing Shreve’s work in the gallery, Jaksa hired Shreve to create a dreamlike photograph to appear above a pensively posed sculpture in her home. She wants Shreve’s surreal photograph to look as though it’s the subject of the statue’s thoughts.

“Her photographs are haunting and beautiful at the same time,” Jaksa said.

Jaksa was looking for art less “accosting” than some of the modern work she has seen.

“(Shreve’s work) reaches beyond realism, and yet it’s beautiful,” she said.

That’s exactly what Shreve aims for. Her personal philosophy, written on a card that accompanies her artwork at the gallery, remarks that art should be beautiful – even when it’s disturbing.

Shreve’s style embraces this balance. Themes such as death are presented in a visually pleasing way, and her portraits glimpse the other-worldly with awe but not fear.

“I love the supernatural aspects,” she said, often using words such as “mystical” to

describe her work. “I don’t like art that I consider ugly, and I think there is art out there that is trying to be disturbing, but it’s ugly. I think it can be disturbing without being ugly.”

In one photo titled “Death,” a black-shrouded figure seems to float above the ground near a river’s edge. As with many of Shreve’s stills, it seems simultaneously in and out of focus, leaving one with a sense of misty wonder.

Another, called “Persephone” shows a veiled woman evoking the sadness and beauty said to envelop its namesake. And a photo featuring an obscured face and its owner’s arm wrapped around a stout oak is titled “Dryad” after the tree nymphs by that name.

Shreve is quick to point out that her background is not in art; she studied classics at Macalester College as an undergrad. So the hundreds, if not thousands, of mythological depictions haven’t clouded her interpretations of the mythology she knows and loves.

“Because I don’t have a background in art, it probably gave me a fresh perspective,” she said.