An Artist Challenges Viewers to Notice the Details

Photographer Peter Bo Rappmund’s exhibition in the Laguna Art Museum blends still imagery into film-like documentary sequences. Photo by Danielle Robbins

A snow-covered plain in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, a set of pipelines traversing barren soil, a concrete channel that was once a bucolic river bed, views of downtown Los Angeles and, finally, the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, tinged resplendently by the setting sun. These images, distinguished by subtle drama, coloration and not always pretty are part of “Psychohydrography,” a 2010 film featuring the siphoning of water from the mountains into the Los Angeles basin and to the sea.

It is one of three films created by Laguna Beach photographer Peter Bo Rappmund currently showing at the Laguna Art Museum. The exhibition titled “ex.pose: Peter Bo Rappmund” relies on photographic images turned into a hybrid film medium.

Devised by museum curator Grace Kook Anderson, the show consists of “Psychohydrography” plus “Tectonics,” a similarly conceptualized video that tracks the convoluted U.S.-Mexico border  and “Vulgar Fractions,” a photographic journey along Nebraska’s border with its neighboring states.

Visually arresting and subtly thought-provoking, the images playing in endless loops are unwaveringly intriguing, especially since their underlying themes touch on regional history and controversial current events. “Psychohydrography” and “Tectonics” will be screened on July 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Humanities Gateway Building at UC Irvine where Bo Rappmund will be available to answer questions. He will also hold a question and answer session on Sept. 16 at 3 p.m. at the museum.

“Vulgar Fractions,” focuses on markers delineating the historical significance of a region considered fly-over country by many. In Bo Rappmund’s viewfinder it becomes an area defined by stark beauty and evidence of, for example, how the West became settled and conflicts over slavery that preceded the Civil War. As for the use of “vulgar” in its title, Kook Anderson explained that the archaic word used to denote nothing more offensive than “common.”

When Bo Rappmund loaded up his cameras and sound equipment to follow the border between Mexico and the U.S., he was prepared to find evidence of politics gone awry, resiliency on both sides and also tragedy. While he admits to sometimes feeling uneasy about his safety, he stressed how he encountered encouragement and help. “I took care to avoid dogma, preaching and political hyperbole. Through careful choices of images and editing I want observers to think and make decisions for them selves,” he said. Thus, the notorious border fence resembles at times nothing more sinister than, say, a Richard Serra sculpture, while the image of a mass grave outside of Mexicali suggests the brutal penalties of border politics. “It is important that people look at the entire film,” he emphasized.

“Peter’s work is a great representation of America and what our identity is. He chose not to dumb images down and cater to our two-minute attention span. Instead he challenges us to really take time to notice all the details,” said Kook Anderson.

Bo Rappmund explained how he first researches areas before taking as many as 10,000 digital images. After sharp editing, he stitches the most significant images together in a complicated animation process that forms an intersection between still photography and film. Several frames also show evidence of time-lapse photography, a process that give images a sense of accelerated motion and greater detail. “It’s a contemplative process that involves using a ‘light room’ on the computer and flash cards for sequencing photographs,” he explained.

Born in 1979, Bo Rappmund is the youngest son of a Korean mother and a German father, a self-described black sheep who, against his parents’ wishes, eschewed business school in favor of the California Institute of the Arts. But, he said that parentally mandated training as a classical pianist now gives him the foundation to play hip keyboard tunes and compose background music and soundtracks for his films.

What’s next? He is planning to travel to Portugal to document Pritzker Prize winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and to attend a film fest in Locarno, Switzerland. He’s also following the progress of the hotly debated Keystone Pipeline. He plans to begin photographing the affected environment between Alberta, Canada, and the Texas Gulf Coast later this year.

Then again, this summer has brought about a completely novel project for him and his wife Denise, their newborn son, Sacha West Bo Rappmund.

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