“Buoyancy,” a thoughtful selection of work by the late James Fee (1949-2006), explores the photographer’s longstanding attraction to water and the sea. In Fee’s moody, mostly black and white images of boats, ships, docks, bridges, islands, marine life and bubbling surf -- drawn from various series dating from 1992 to 2003 -- the show traces a poignant emotional undercurrent, one governed, in large part, by a fraught relationship with a troubled father.
It will be lost on no perceptive viewer that the boats Fee photographed were generally sinking. He captured giant tankers tipping on their sides and devoted an entire series to the bare, stripped shell of the SS United States, the largest ocean liner ever constructed in this country. One especially striking triptych, taken off the coast of Staten Island, depicts a veritable graveyard of decommissioned ferries and tugboats half-submerged like children’s toys.
Fee’s association of boats with the status of American power, a consistent through line, had a political but also deeply personal dimension. His father was a World War II veteran who fought in the battle of Peleliu, in present-day Palau, and returned with emotional scars that made life with his son “a very schizophrenic experience,” as Fee describes it in one of the show’s wall texts. They became estranged over the issue of the Vietnam War, and the elder Fee killed himself several years later. In the late 1990s, Fee began traveling to Peleliu, documenting the landscape and making contact with other survivors of the battle.
It is at this point that the camera itself begins to sink, dipping under the water to explore the strange entanglement of military wreckage and sea life, or bobbing at the surface to capture the play of rippling light and churning foam. These are the show’s most intimate and also most lyrical works. If the ship-related images are stately and foreboding, underscoring the sea’s capacity for destruction, these suggest water as a vehicle for redemption and regeneration.
Fee’s work, in the gallery’s main space, is complemented by “Yonder,” a lovely exhibition of aerial photographs by Rose-Lynn Fisher. They’re small works — 6 by 4½ inches — that quite literally cover a lot of ground: hundreds of square miles at a stretch, as viewed from the window of a commercial airliner. Fisher is hardly the first to adopt such an approach, but she employs it with distinction. She has a sensitive eye for pattern and texture, and frames each view in such a way as to emphasize the pictorial complexity and nuance of the abstracted landscape. In several past series, Fisher has photographed microscopically. Here, she takes the opposite tack, but to similar effect, revealing entire dimensions of visual poetry that go unseen by the naked — or in this case, earthbound — eye.
Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. B3, Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through Saturday. www.craigkrullgallery.com