Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, “First of May” (2015) (courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, Ill.)

Strange and Wonderful Stories Animate Contemporary Photography

Much has been written about the truthfulness of photography. Going back to the earliest iteration of the medium, the daguerreotype was said to render a likeness so perfect that it could only be used for scientific purposes. In fact, days after astronomer and physicist François Arago’s announcement of the daguerreotype’s invention in Paris by Louis Daguerre in 1839, critics contended that photography held “a degree of perfection which art can never attain.” The implication being, of course, that photography was a mere mechanical reproduction and could never be considered an art. Humph.

Artists have long asserted the artistic potential of photography. In the mid-19th century, at a time when photography was vying for a seat at the “fine art” table, staging/constructed narrative techniques were used to underscore the creative process of photography. These included: composing sets mirroring popular literary or moralistic themes, darkroom alterations (i.e., multiple exposure or photomontage), or creating elaborate tableaus completely from imagination. Although technologies have evolved — photographic processes and digital capabilities — the use of staging and narrative has never been stronger. Photographers like Sarah Moon and Vee Speers offer open-ended narratives. Maggie Taylor’s work is strictly from her own imagination. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison create a post-apocalyptic world to call attention to environmental crises.

Sarah Moon, “La Robe a Pois” (1996) (courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, N.Y.)
Sarah Moon, “La Robe a Pois” (1996) (courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, N.Y.)

Sarah Moon’s work has always been grounded in fashion. Beginning as a model and later evolving into a fashion photographer, she focuses on the in-between moments: a quick turn of the head, a quiet exchange of words, or a relaxed pose between shots. Instead of staging, Moon relies on cropping, unexpected vantage point, and effusive color to provide a glimpse into an unfinished narrative — often with a touch of whimsy. The conical (and somewhat genderless) figure in “La Robe a Pois” (1996) (left) hides behind a mask of hands — a nonsensical gesture for a fashion model. Saturated in jewel-toned color, these images are less about the identity or body shape of the model, or on the detailing of the clothing, but rather exude a dreamlike quality that moves beyond objective reality.

Vee Speers, “Untitled #16,  The Birthday Party” (2008)
Vee Speers, “Untitled #16, The Birthday Party” (2008) (courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, Ga. © Vee Speers)

For her “Birthday Party” series, Australian-born, Paris-based photographer Vee Speers (with a background in fashion) made portraits of children attending an imaginary celebration. In “Untitled #16, The Birthday Party” (2008), a little girl wearing a sort of intergalactic-looking dress, sporting a child-sized beehive updo, blows an impossibly large bubble — with nothing but her hands. Positioned against a plain backdrop, nothing is given away — the existence of this child is completely void of context. The washed-out color palette clearly references the past or perhaps, a chilling peek at a doom-laden future. And how is she conjuring that bubble? In any case, Speers has inserted an unmistakably creepy undertone to this work. Her seemingly straightforward portraits of children instead allude to a dystopian world of l’enfant terrible.

Maggie Taylor, “Moth Dancer” (2004) (courtesy of the artist)
Maggie Taylor, “Moth Dancer” (2004) (courtesy of the artist)

With an arsenal of images at her disposal, Maggie Taylor uses Photoshop to create surreal scenes from her imagination. Connecting 21st-century technology (a flatbed scanner) with 19th-century imagery, uploaded old photographs are enlivened with individually photographed objects taken from around the house, found in the garden, or from treasured collections. Finished compositions are a curious mix of fantastical and familiar — the stuff of dreams. In “Moth Dancer” (2004) (below), a masked dancer stands in the moonlight with ethereal moths affixed to her waistband. Whimsical yet dignified, she stands confidently with hands on her hips. Adding, removing and changing is just a part of the process, not unlike the assemblage of decorative components in a dollhouse. No question that this is meticulous work, with no detail deemed too small to be overlooked.

Using found and handmade objects, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison create elaborate tableaus, immersing the viewer in a surreal landscape. The “Everyman,” played by Robert ParkeHarrison himself, is the sole inhabitant of a damaged planet. Dressed in a dark suit, the Everyman is doggedly determined to save the world from further peril. Elements of the theater of the absurd — seemingly futile acts in hopeless situations — drive him to actions like using two huge megaphones to listen for wisdom from the barren landscape, as seen in “First of May” (2015) (above). With an emphasis on the doing of the action and not on the outcome, there is a hopeful reassurance in his attempts to right seemingly overwhelming wrongs. Through these narratives, the ParkeHarrisons explore issues of environmental responsibility, human isolation and purpose, and the power of creativity.

Constructed/narrative photography is not for everyone. Purists balk at its “fake” or kitschy nature. But photography has ultimately always been about storytelling. Photographers who delve into the dream (and sometimes nightmare) realm, full of fantasy or as a mechanism to deal with difficult issues, are just telling different kinds of stories. And who doesn’t love a juicy fairy tale?

Top: Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, “First of May” (2015) (courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, Ill.)

Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

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