Photographer Beth Dow explores eerie landscapes and distorted still lifes

'The Valley'

'The Valley' Beth Dow

When photographer Beth Dow’s exhibition “Prediction Error” opens on Thursday at Mia, it will be bittersweet.

Dow’s father, Ron, was also a photographer, and one of the first to exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1967. He passed away in June.

“This is a really personal project for me in an exceptionally personal space because that [space] was so important to my dad; that exhibition he had there,” Dow says. “I wanted so much for him to be able to see this exhibition where he exhibited, too. But he will be in it. You just have to look for him.”

Dow, who specializes in still life and conceptual landscapes, was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Brooklyn Park. Her father did industrial photography and experimental work, like making his own images with chemicals, crystals, and heat. “I grew up thinking that that’s what everybody did, thinking that everybody worked experimentally and that everyone had a black and white and color darkroom in their basement,” Dow says. “I just grew up with it. I took it for granted.”

From a young age, she was often handed a camera loaded with color film. She’d work with her father to make her own slides by drawing on film with a Sharpie, and she was a self-professed “obsessive” drawer. That love of graphite on paper would later manifest in her photography as a predilection for black-and-white images, especially when it came to landscapes that have been altered by humans.

“I’m interested in the landscape as a setting for experience,” she says. Over the course of her career, that’s meant series on formal gardens in England and Italy or marginal rural landscapes. Her latest work focuses on the Badlands, where “the human hand has had no touch, really,” and is almost all in color.

'The Valley 2'

'The Valley 2' Beth Dow

When she first visited the Badlands, she was intrigued by how much it looked like a lunar landscape. It reminded her of NASA space images that her father once printed out. “[I was] walking through the Badlands, and suddenly the images from space didn’t look like ‘other,’” she says. “I realized I was on a rock and that I was also in space. I’ve always thought about our place in the universe and how that expands my understanding of my own habitat. My own habitat isn’t limited to this planet we’re on. It’s all linked.”

Though landscape photographs are often assumed to be innocuous, Dow likes to infuse hers with a disconcerting aura. She’s drawn to the juxtaposition of beauty and malice, the tension between dark and light.

“I’m creating a landscape where I hope to establish a non-verbal feeling, a phenomenon rather than just images that describe topography,” Dow says. This is evident in her “Prediction Error” installations called The Valley. It’s a shadowy, foreboding take on the natural world.

What these scenes resemble is open to interpretation. “I’m never documenting a truth that’s meant to be universally understood. I’m always positing a sense of space or throwing out a possibility,” she says. “They’re more an invitation to enter and to create your own story.”

For her still life series, Dow also pulled from R. L. Gregory’s The Intelligent Eye, a book about how our brains process present data by pulling from a bank of past experience. The artist wanted to explore what happens when that prediction goes wrong, also known as the “prediction error.”

She uses subjects like a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit, then distorts the image, making the viewer wish they could adjust their eyesight to see the objects more clearly. “I like that stuff. Photography is an especially great medium for that, because we trust photography,” she says. “There’s that old saying: A photograph never lies. Well, that’s just wrong. They lie all the time.”

Still lifes.

Still lifes. Beth Dow

Even her own photographs lie, despite being minimally altered. Dow, a self-proclaimed “analog retentive” photographer, shoots in both digital and film. Sometimes she uses software on an image, but she’s equally as likely to use chemistry and light in the darkroom to alter the negative.

Overall, Dow hopes that viewers will “feel something rather than think something,” she says. And despite the analytical nature of her art, she still wants to make pieces that are visually appealing, pieces she’d want to hang on her own walls. “I like it when something’s beautiful but you can’t quite put your finger on why.”


Beth Dow, “Prediction Error”
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The exhibition opens Thursday, July 19. There will be a public reception on Thursday, August 16, from 6 to 9 p.m.
The show is on view through October 28