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Fire and Ice: Buffalo photographers find beauty in their back yards

Some photographers will venture to the ends of the earth in pursuit of beauty and adventure.

But for Douglas Levere and Alan Friedman, whose joint exhibition “Fire and Ice” opens Saturday in CEPA Gallery, the backyard will do just fine.

For Levere, beauty floats down from the sky and onto his microscope slides in the form of crystalline snowflakes, each one an intricate study in structure and symmetry. For Friedman, who owns the greeting card company Great Arrow Graphics, it pours through the hydrogen-alpha filter of his compact telescope from 90 million miles away, leaving searing and remarkably vivid impressions of the sun’s swirling atmosphere.

In each case, because of the demands of their daily lives and the innovative working processes they’ve devised, these artists are forcing the beauty to come to them.

Friedman’s photographs of the sun, which he began taking in 2009 from his Buffalo backyard, have gained him an international reputation as a gifted astrophotographer. With a surprisingly small telescope and what he described as an industrial webcam, Friedman captures some 600 or 700 frames of the sun during a particularly interesting event – the eruption of gigantic clouds of gas from the sun’s surface or the swirling sun-spots that appear and disappear like acne on the sun’s surface. He then uses software to merge those frames into a single, sharp image, inverts it like a photo negative and often colorizes it to add a sense of drama or to reflect a certain wavelength of light.

“What you can do 50 feet from your back door is very important,” he said. “Finding everything you need in your back yard is the way to get immersed in work.”

Levere’s work testifies to this fact. His pristine snowflake photographs, by contrast, rely on a patched-together DIY rig in his Amherst garage consisting of a broken microscope he bought on Ebay, a propped-up flash and a high-resolution still camera. When the temperature is right, he retreats to his suburban studio with a captured flake, working quickly to capture up to 50 frames. The results, composites achieved by the same process as Friedman’s photographs, are striking, blue-hued crystal close-ups with distinct personalities.

In familiarizing themselves with one another’s work, Levere and Friedman realized some surprising similarities between their apparently disparate subjects. The size of a snowflake, for instance, is roughly the same size of the sun as viewed from earth. The amount of magnification they use to create their photographs is also roughly similar, as is the software they use to create them.

Their chosen subjects are obviously central to the lives of Western New Yorkers, but the photographs also seem to suggest a kind of unity of form between the impossibly frigid and the unfathomably hot, the astrological and the terrestrial, the stratospheric and the cellular. Viewers have made comparisons between Friedman’s sun shots and human ovums, and between Levere’s snowflakes and soaring skyscrapers.

Levere, who works as a photographer for the University at Buffalo and also runs the photography business Print Collection headquartered on the same floor of the Trimain Building as Friedman’s greeting card outfit, said he was attracted to the sun photographs because they satisfy part of his curiosity.

“The object is this unreachable thing that we do not have a grasp on,” Levere said of Friedman’s subject. “I know very little about the sun. It’s this object that is the center of our world, which we don’t really appreciate.”

Friedman, for his part, appreciates Levere’s work as much for its aesthetic qualities as the opportunity it provides him to tiptoe back into to the Western New York art world, which he hasn’t participated in since shortly after graduating from UB’s art program in 1976.

“I think we have a lot of common interests in our approach to art. We both have other gigs. We both have a day job. This will be my first show since Hallwalls was at Essex Street in 1977. Having this other person’s work that I can get excited about is so refreshing.” Friedman said, adding that he hoped the collaboration would hit a kind of sweet spot between science and art that would be attractive to viewers from both worlds. His work alone, he said, “tends to be too sciencey for the art guys and to arty for the science guys.”

This exhibition may change that, both photographers said, possibly opening the door to educational collaborations with science museums and other venues interested in the surprising and poetic parity between snow and sun. (Friedman is already a research associate at the Buffalo Museum of Science, where he often works with kids interested in astronomy.)

Even if the show does not send their joint reputation to astronomical heights, it will have achieved something important for Western New York by demonstrating how two busy family men with thriving businesses have marshalled their marshalled their backyard hobbies into national reputations and beautiful works of art.

Even when the snowflakes threaten to melt, or when the sky is too bright to shoot distant planets, these guys have found a way.

“This is a lousy place to do astronomy. Fifty clear nights a year and you have a dance recital of your daughter’s on 20 of those. But the sun is good because you can do it in the day. You can share it with people during the day,” Friedman said, adding that his fellow photographers travel to distant locales in Chile and Barbados in the pursuit of the perfect shot.

For Friedman and Levere, no plane tickets or fancy equipment is necessary. The perfect shot is right outside the door.


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