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Through the lens: Donna Levreault explores ‘visual atmosphere’

By Jim Blair
Special to The Union
“Columbine” (the flower) is a creative example of going beyond photography.
Donna Levreault

Donna Levreault has been ready for “social distancing” for some time. While her numerous, almost regular shows in northern California have achieved a remarkable presence in the art world, she now has a tantalizing exposition of her photography on the web — and now in The Union newspaper.

Donna says, “During difficult times, and this is certainly one of those, I try to focus my attention on what’s in front of me. Spring unfolds, reminding me of the cycle of life. Seeing the beauty of flowers gives me instant pleasure. Worry and anxiety vanish, at least for the moment.”

Photography has been her medium for exploring the beauty of both the natural and human-made world for 20 years. Since she’s interested in the visual atmosphere of a subject rather than the details, the images are often soft, blurred, or otherwise distorted. She prefers to produce these effects in her camera rather than her computer, and sometimes by using a special process we’ll discuss later, she doesn’t use any camera at all. The results are often unpredictable, but that means there will always be refreshing surprises. “Columbine” (the flower) is a creative example of going beyond photography to be discussed below.

Donna Levreault

Donna’s approach to photography is not only exceptionally creative, but it also is organized into “portfolios” (collections) that add meaning through relationships among the photos. We’ve organized this article around the portfolios, each with its own story. She mastered creative writing at San Francisco State University, so we didn’t have to add much exposition. 

Close by Her Home

About ten years ago, walking around her San Francisco neighborhood, she noticed the unique relationship each leaf or tree or vine had with the human-made elements around it. Such relationships are transitory, based on light, shadow, the time of day, the season, the weather. The images in her portfolio “Close By” are an attempt to capture that fleeting quality as well as our timeless relationship with the natural world, which can spring up where we least expect it as with this light festooned tree, “Night Tree”.


The Backyard Portfolio, Travel Not Required

A backyard can be used in many ways — as a playground, a convenient place to put things we no longer need, or a space where we can create our own personal landscape or garden. In her Backyard portfolio shot in Grass Valley, Donna’s goal is to show how a backyard can be a visual haven, a place to relax and dream, safe from the public eye, a place where imagination can see a bird feeder in a Fall tree as an explosion of color, as in “Hummingbird Feeder.”


She says, “Sometimes ordinary things lose their strict boundaries and merge with one another. They seem alive. Color becomes more of a feeling or vibration and time dissolves….”

Ghost Flowers — Who Needs a Camera?

This photo, “Holly Hock” is made without a camera: it’s actually a scan of a paper image!

It’s called Lumen printing, a process dating from the 1800s. A lumen print can be made using old darkroom printing paper (still available on eBay). Donna places the flower or plant cutting on the paper and covers it with glass, exposes it to the sun, and waits up to six hours. Exposure time, temperature, and humidity, the unique chemical properties of the plant, and the brand of paper used affect the image. Sometimes there are dramatic color shifts from the original subject.


Donna scans the lumen print into her computer soon after exposure, and then makes some basic adjustments in Photoshop (photo editor). This photo of a lumen print is representative of photos in her portfolio, Ghost Flowers.

Lumen prints are unpredictable and appear as a ghost image of the plant with colors that can range from brilliant to more subdued tones. At times, the process can seem almost magical, but it is really a product of the atmospheric conditions and whatever paper and flowers Donna had on hand that day.

Her Photos Become Unique Works of Art

When talking about another of her portfolios, Among the Trees, Donna declared, “Trees reveal their beauty throughout all the seasons, whether luxuriant with leaves or bare to the bones. With their roots in the earth and their branches in the sky, they seem to exist in multiple realms, slipping in and out of vision. Swaying, leaning, and twisting, they appear to be still and unchanging but also fluid and ephemeral.”

For this portfolio of images, she wanted to render an emotional rather than a realistic portrait of trees. To do this she used a soft-focus lens, camera movement, and a mixed-media technique called encaustic.


The encaustic process is two steps, first preparing a photo print using Photoshop, then adding the physical layers of translucent wax and oil to a print on a wooden panel. The multiple layers of wax and oils create a depth and “soft sensuousness” that is not possible with a photographic print alone. Donna notes that, “These are indeed dream trees existing more in my imagination than in the woods where they are found.”

In another portfolio, Fugitive Flowers, Donna wanted to communicate the fleeting, temporary aspect of flowers: their beauty seems to change by the hour. In this portfolio, the encaustic process created a surreal appearance through the layers added to the print. For the flowers, she added other elements to the wax, including collage materials, oils and pastels, and metallic powders. It’s difficult to describe the physical work of art here, but “Roses” is wonderful even in this two-dimensional photo of the three-dimensional piece. Donna feels that, “The final pieces show flowers unmoored from their natural form and surroundings, arriving at another place, transformed”.


At the Edge of the Water in Three Parts

With two unusual and highly creative processes used in Donna’s portfolios, she decided to add another presentation form, the triptych (three photos presented as one). Historically, the three-panel triptych form has been used for religious paintings. Here, it emphasizes three different parts of the image without losing a sense of the whole. This photo of a triptych, “Colusa Wildlife Refuge”, provides an idea of the finished art work.


Donna notes, “Here, amid the thunder of a thousand wings and bird cries, it is possible to feel a certain peace in an uncertain world.”

The challenge of presenting “a timeless place where water, land, and sky meet” on a misty winter day was met by the combination of the triptych photographs with the encaustic process, and an elegant gallery setting shown here in “Triptychs, Tong Gallery, Walnut Grove, CA”.


Seeing the triptychs in a gallery is an experience worth pursuing now that we’ve shared a few photos of her art works. Her show earlier this year at Nevada City Winery was very successful and led to a number of sales, an artist’s validation.

When social distancing rules allow, we’ll let you know about her next show through this paper and social media. In the meantime, see her beautiful portfolios at website, Instagram, and Facebook page.

Jim Bair’s web site is http://www.JimBairPhotography.com. He has had solo shows, won numerous awards, and sold many prints; see some of his award winning photos in this newspaper at http://www.theunion.com/news/through-the-lens-a-qa-with-photographer-featured-artist-jim-bair.


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