Urban Journey: Silent Observations
On view through Sept. 3
Robert Lange Studios
151 East Bay St., 805-8052

As a champion of photographic art, John Duckworth has spent the past year blurring the line between camera work and other traditional media. His new show provides a literal take on that blurriness, with consciously unfocused digital shots of city life.

Duckworth has spent the past five months working on more than 20 pieces for his Urban Journey exhibition at Robert Lange Studios, trying to capture what a blink-of-an-eye moment feels like in downtown Charleston. Unlike his earlier, green-hued, flat-horizoned landscape abstracts, which had a soothing atmosphere despite the distorted motion effect he gave them, these smudged vignettes are full of twinkling lights and human activity. The purpose of that activity is impossible to make out, and viewers have to squint to see any definite objects. But the art works best when seen from a distance as an abstract piece that just happens to retain familiar elements like store fronts or headlights.

It’s fitting that Duckworth cites Edward Hopper as an inspiration for his work. Hopper was, in turn, influenced by the asphalt-set flicks he saw; Duckworth got his idea for Urban Journey from a recent movie by Jean-Luc Godard. “There’s a moment in the film where everything is blown out of focus in the distance,” says the artist. “That sparked an idea.” Duckworth compares his photography to plein air painting, snaring “the colors that I see and the moment I was there,” and is passionately sold on the medium of digital photography.

“Now that I’ve gone digital I can work far more intuitively,” he says. “I can see if I got what I’m looking for on the LCD screen.” Back in his studio Duckworth adjusts the contrast and manipulates his favorite images until he feels like he’s created a “meditative, calming” scene. He says he makes a point of not using autoblend features or other Adobe Photoshop software gimmicks that take away his creative control.

Some of the resulting pieces are more effective than others. Duckworth’s attention to composition and color is obvious, with blue and brown dominating. Artificial lights fall like brazen ink spot splashes on the canvas, dominating the scenes that they disturb with their red and white brightness. The best pieces have distinguishable subjects — a cyclist, passing cars — while the rest are too much of a strain on the eyes to achieve that tranquil mood that Duckworth’s working to achieve. It’s human nature to try to make sense of an abstract that’s based on our local environment, even if that’s not what the artist wants.

In truth, this form of art is nothing new. Photographers have been experimenting with the medium’s artistic potential since its birth: Henri Cartier-Bresson created great images of moving, silhouetted people in his ’30s-era urban work, and in the ’40s Clarence John Laughlin superimposed images to create an abstract elegy for the South. Digital technology has made it easier for photographers to play with their pix, which Duckworth readily admits: “Everything I do now I couldn’t do with film, it would be too labor intensive.”

Yet despite the lack of real ingenuity and the potential for eyeball ache, Duckworth’s earlier series of landscapes have proved popular; they’re currently on display in Savannah’s Grand Bohemian Gallery and Millennia Fine Arts in Orlando. Thankfully, the artist hasn’t completely abandoned his far more palatable paintings and digital art, and he says he’ll return to his Icons series once the Robert Lange show’s done.

In Icons, the artist deconstructs portraits of famous folk (Einstein, George Washington, Marilyn Monroe) and recolors them in interesting ways, referencing Warhol and Picasso as he goes. As with Urban Journey, the icons invite viewers to squint or look at them in low light, where they start to look like photographs.

With both his present series, Duckworth seeks to undermine perceptions of how an artwork is created. “The urban abstracts have a strong resemblance and reference to paintings,” says the artist, noting that at first glance, a lot of people don’t realize they’re looking at a photo. Thus the aesthetics become as important as the process, freeing viewers up to enjoy the balance of color and tone without any of the preconceptions they might ordinarily bring to a medium.

As his fascination with color theory and abstraction grows, Duckworth continues to support photography, citing its rise in popularity on the international art market. With his hazy urban shots he’s also standing up for the average snapper whose pictures may not always be perfect or even in focus, but still capture a personally relevant moment. To Duckworth, that’s more important than any crystal-clear image.