Photographer Greg Dohler’s Surreal Sense of Place: At 13.5% Wine Bar Starting Tomorrow

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"Home" by Gregory Dohler
“Home” by Greg Dohler

Greg Dohler is that rarest humanoid: a nice guy who can hold down a full-time job, show up socially on time, and cook dinner, but also a guy gifted with superbly special creative vision he knows how to bring to life. You might also know him as the lanky blond drummer from Baltimore bands Helikopter (early ’90s) and, until recently, Small Apartments. Greg and his wife, Cindy France, are good friends of my husband–now they’re also mine–so I’ve had some patient time to sit on their black vintage couch, drink the classic cocktails Greg researches and mixes up, and listen to him think out loud. When Greg showed me his new photo montage work last year, I remember I was sitting on a step in his house in Ham Roll (where Hampden meets Roland Park). I wanted to convey how much I liked the work–because I did–but first I just wanted to fall into it, to belong to its luxuriously weird world. A child in a kerchief, from another age, rode a donkey; an old woman haunted a marshy landscape; a Baltimore rowhouse’s second story perched precariously at an eerie coastline. (See above the same photo I recall, “Home.”) “Wow,” I whispered dully. Every element worked together so organically–if surreally–I felt like I was inside the frame finding my legs on a new planet. I’ve seen surreal photo montage now and again, and it has never really been my cup of (bloody) tea, but Greg’s digitally blended work feels wholly other. There’s a destructive/redemptive quality to Dohler’s vision, a longing, a mourning, and yet a hopeful magic at play here. A comparison? Not easy. Kiki Smith’s gentle rendering of girl and beast in “Lying with the Wolf” pops to mind. But mostly I’m reminded how well Greg sees with his mind’s eye. (A bio side note that makes more sense to me than ever: Greg’s dad was the beloved low-budget sci-fi and horror film director Don Dohler. )

I talked to my friend about the genesis of his photo project and what he’s working on now. You can catch his latest work starting tomorrow and running through September 20th at 13.5% Wine Bar in Hampden–1117 W. 36th Street. To see more of Greg’s art visit his website. 

Who and what are you biggest influences? The premise for the montage project was to explore the curious connections made by the unconscious mind in dreams, especially those in which old memories merge with new ones to create strange vignettes. I have a pretty big stockpile of original photographs at this point in my life, and I liked the idea of isolating elements from images produced in a different years and in various locations to form new surrealistic scenes. For the look of the pieces, I took inspiration from the stylish and intense cinematography of classic film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. My work is also influenced by photographer Ralph Meatyard’s haunting images of his children in monster masks set against a backdrop of abandoned spaces.

"Attraction" by Gregory Dohler
“Attraction” by Greg Dohler

How do you decide how to piece these works together?
I usually start with one main element that will set the tone for the work; sometimes it’s a person or a thing, other times it’s a landscape that I find interesting. From there it’s a long trial-and-error process in which I will test out 30 or 40 different elements before settling on the five or six that typically comprise the final piece. I try to take a minimalist approach with the compositions; I think that leaving adequate space around each element allows them to have the biggest impact. 

Is there a narrative taking shape in your mind?
I am always thinking about the natural world when I am working on a piece. In my day job as a photojournalist, I spend a lot of time driving on highways and in rural areas; I see big, dramatic skies, wild fields, lots of birds and I am constantly reminded of the vastness, beauty and volatility of nature. I am also fascinated with the power of nature to reclaim abandoned spaces. Ultimately, I think these works are about finding beauty in the impermanence of everything.

"November" by Gregory Dohler
“November” by Greg Dohler

Which piece feels the most personal?
The first piece I completed, “Abandon,” feels the most personal because it showed me that my ideas could work the way I had imagined them. Also, the piece called “Lost” features distant relatives cut out from an old family snapshot given to me by my grandmother. I like that I was able to give new life to their likenesses.

What are you working on now?
I produced six large-scale pieces for this show, and I was able to incorporate many of the ideas I envisioned when I began the project a couple years ago. I completed the final work, “Attraction,” just a week ago and I think it has a Fellini-esque quality that may be worth exploring in future works.