Berkeley photographer's tale-telling technique on display
By Lou Fancher
A photograph by Lisa Toby is not an image taken as much as it is a short story allowed to breathe in visual form.
Shooting mostly botanicals, the Berkeley-based photographer leaves the lens of her Canon EOS 5D Mark II open overlong and performs a peculiar behind-camera dance that causes people who see her to cross to the other side of the street. The 600 speed flash Toby uses at dusk sometimes brings people out of their homes, wondering if a transformer has blown or alien spaceships have landed amid the rhododendrons in their front lawns.
While the 61-year-old photographer's technique engenders trepidation and surprise, the resulting images inspire awe. In her most recent work, lush, vibrantly colored plants and flowers appear as if in a dream out of painterly, swirling clouds of fog or mist-filled light. The eye knows that the images are still; the imaginative mind insists they swoop and soar, float and cascade.
"She was a photographer, then a painter, then a photographer again, so there's beautiful, long-developed vision. She's an artist through-and-through who prints her own work," says Nan Phelps, whose Nan Phelps Photography at 398 Colusa Ave. in Kensington presents "Found in Time," a rare show of Toby's work May 7 to June 7. Phelps says most contemporary photographers use digital tools and techniques to tighten their work -- sapping the pictures of life and leaning to sterile austerity. "Lisa's images are exuberant, loose, the work of a master craftsperson."Toby, describing her work's greatest moments, says, "When artwork is coming out, I feel the most surrendered in life: absolutely happy."
During her childhood, the New York City native drew mostly buildings, lettering, and abstract textures. A lifelong habit of chasing the botanical muse led to Toby earning a BFA in Photography and Printmaking from California College of the Arts in 1979. Meeting Tim Goodman, also a fine art photographer, the couple formed Goodman Landscape Design, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. "Tim and I live and breathe our artwork, we can't get away from it and that's a great thing, a tremendous thing," she says.
Nonstop art creation is evident inside and outside their home; in Toby's time-suspending and vulnerable images, her husband's assertive black-and-white photographs, and in the lush expression in a backyard bursting with native and drought-tolerant plants, natural rocks, sculpture, wrought-iron railings and more. Even so, life's vagaries -- and sometimes, Toby herself -- have resulted in disruption.
More than 20 years ago, looking at an image she'd photographed, Toby realized it held no emotion. She ditched photography entirely and picked up oil pastels. "Getting messy, putting my fingers right into color, there was freedom," she says. Eventually, taking a photo of her husband while on vacation and accidentally leaving the flash open, he moved and his ghostly image sprang to life when Toby developed the film. "I realized I can grab the reality of photography and the expressivity of painting simultaneously."
She returned to photography, but life intervened. Diagnosed with a malignant tumor on her kidney in 2014, Toby zeroed in on surgery and treatment. The couple's son Cole, meanwhile, turned troubled teen years into mature planning and headed off to UCLA as a pre-med student. The separations -- from normal health, from familiar family structures -- could have undone her, but instead, they bolstered her vision.
Free of cancer for two years and once again anticipating the joy of autumn sunsets, a favorite season, Toby says her photos aren't political, but she cares deeply about the planet and whether or not its beauty is protected. Her darkroom manipulations are minimal: the roughly 16 pieces featured in the upcoming exhibit have been spotted and color has been introduced, but nothing else is added or deleted. "They're not all about perfection, there's decay too. Beauty is fleeting and so is life. We're here for a short time. It matters," she says.
The title of her show, "Found in Time," invites multiple interpretations, as do her images. "It's finding my tumor early, it's flowers and plants that live not in a click, but in time," she says. "It's reaching inside and peeking at what you see, finding meaning within you. It's beauty that's worth our time."