- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

Sometimes, great technical and creative possibilities languish in unexplored corners, waiting to be salvaged from obscurity. Think electricity, computers, the song stylings of “American Idol’s” William Hung.

Other times — as in the case of mullets, say, or Janet Jackson’s breast — obscurity is for the best.

In the former case, it falls to brave innovators to turn what has remained latent into something wonderful, new or — best of all — profitable. Mark Tosti of Fairfax wants to be this kind of man.

In 1999, Mr. Tosti, then a filmmaker, had a revelation that impelled him to explore a historically undeveloped area of art. His virgin territory: the circular frame.

It is true that most masterpieces of painting and photography have been executed within the confines of rectangles, notwithstanding such notable exceptions as domed-ceiling frescoes.

“World Cities in the Round: Selections From Washington, Paris and New York,” Mr. Tosti’s premiere solo exhibit, at the Fairfax Arts Center until Friday, is the product of his five-year commitment to reversing centuries of historic neglect.

Unfortunately, the 21 photographs that make up “World Cities” suggest there may have been sound reasons for the circle’s absence.

Mr. Tosti’s innovation amounts to circular-frame photographs shot with what seems to be a fish-eye lens. Mr. Tosti says he shot only one of the photographs in the exhibit with a traditional 180-degree fish-eye lens. For the rest, he used lens technology whose particulars he would not reveal, saying he preferred to keep his method a “trade secret.”

Even if his technology is new, however, the effect is familiar. In Mr. Tosti’s photographs, images look as though they have been pulled from the edges like putty, magnifying their edges while keeping the focal point intact — the same effect one gets from looking through a peephole.

Thus, in one photograph, the U.S. Capitol, seen in normal perspective, looks like a tiny tourist trinket, while the reflecting pool yawns before it like a wide, smiling ocean instead of a shallow rectangular pool. In another shot, trees on either side of a building seem to wilt in two directions at once, their leaves bending down toward roots and their roots curving up toward leaves.

The effect can be magical at times. Escher-esque in their complexity and distortions, some of the pictures are eerily surreal. In “Les Halles,” an image recorded at the modernistic Paris shopping mall, Mr. Tosti’s distortions shape a composition in curves that would be impossible with traditional photography. Reflected in a wall of mirrors, a ceiling arcs like a fishnet over the grid of an urban plaza.

In “Rockefeller Center,” the famous ice rink curves like a menacing sneer, making the commercial center, with its bright lights and flashy decor, seem almost demonic.

Unfortunately, these two are the only standouts in a mostly mediocre bunch. In photographing some of the world’s most beautiful architecture, sculpture and landscape, Mr. Tosti never aspires to capture more than surfaces. The works are fatally devoid of emotion. Perhaps his entrepreneurial spirit has led him to forsake anything but technological perfection.

The result is that there is little art in Mr. Tosti’s world, only a painfully distorted, goggle-eyed look at other artists’ masterpieces.

WHAT: “World Cities in the Round: Selections From Washington, Paris and New York”

WHERE: Gallery Justine, Fairfax Arts Center, 3949 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Through Friday.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 703/691-1661

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