In the exhibition, “Found Unfound”, the artist, Keliy Anderson-Staley¹, invites a viewer to contrast what they see with her reasons for creating the images. Keliy is concise in what she reveals².
“The impetus for this autobiographical installation was the recent discovery of my biological father, who I met for the first time last year. Until my mother told me when I was twelve, I did not know that my father, Tom, who had been raising us in an off-grid cabin in Maine, was not my “real” father. My mother gave me a single blurry photograph of my biological father—the only one she had—but somehow I lost it a few years later. This lost photograph, and the significance it acquired for me, is represented in the installation in many forms, including through a series of abstract collodion tintypes that suggest images that will never come into being or that only exist in potential. I photographed both fathers in tintype in the past year, hoping to understand them, my childhood and the role photographs have played in my perception of family. Family photographs that had one meaning before have shifted entirely in what they represent in the aftermath of finding Bill.”³
The exhibition, all in one room, is divided into four segments. One holds portraits of the two fathers, in a series called “Bill, Tom, Father, Dad”. Bill is her Biological father, and the father she grew up with is Tom. Another wall shows prints of her growing up through reproductions of old vintage photographs.4 That segment entitled “A cabin in the Woods”, captures her, her mother and Tom, a Northeasterner with an Ivy league education, living in the rural countryside of Maine, literally off the grid, away from modern conveniences and “traditional” society.5 A third section is images of the cabin/house in which she grew up. These images are placed in wooden boxes she found, referred to as “From the cabin”. The fourth segment is interpretive collodion tintypes of herself, and abstracts of chemicals that flowed across the metal plates reflective of her emotions in dealing with this topic that remind me of Stieglitz’s clouds in his “Equivalent’s” series. These are called “Album”, and “Self-portrait”.
The most visual and emotionally challenging part of the exhibit is the segment on the fathers called “Bill, Tom, Father, Dad”. There is often a relationship or purpose in a photographer taking the portrait of a person that the viewer does not have. How can a viewer, unfamiliar with the situation, appreciate and engage in that image?
Both men have a similar look. At first, it appears to be the same person, but the more the images are studied, the more facial features and expression can not be reconciled. On the wall are 12 images , each 8”x10”; six of each man. Could it have been the same person, at different ages? The white undershirt seemed to link the images. The use of the collodion process, with its gentle blacks, whites and tones of gray draws you in, and unifies the assemblage of portraits into a visual whole.
Once drawn into the images, the eyes are piercing: one staring straight into you and the other appearing deep in thought with a glance to the side. If eyes are a gateway into the soul, then in the first, his eyes show something other than the activity of the moment. A concentration on something past or future, but not now, unless its an emotion related to being photographed. For the other, it feels like he is evaluating the viewer, personally and directly. That straight gaze seems a signature expression of a personality that carefully evaluates those he meets before engaging with them. Then, one notices different hairlines. Both facial expressions are compassionate. However, the hat in two of the images creates a formality in the gaze that doesn’t seem to exist in the portraits without hats. There is an intelligence in the bearing communicated in the portraits that reveal well educated men, one an activist in social issues of the folk-life Vietnam era, and the other an engineer living a very traditional life. She then chose two images to enlarge to 60”x76” from a digital scan. The viewer is then directly confronted by those eyes and gaze.
Keliy, in expressing her feeling through photographs of a found parent, was surprised at how much I wanted to know more about each of her fathers. Because there is one father she knew very well and one not at all until the time they met, our conversation added depth to an appreciation of the images. Just looking at the images, you would not know one man turned his back on conventional society and the other an engineer who helped construct it. One might not know which man was her life father, and the other her birth father.
Her images are a dialogue that can relate to many families today in America. Its a visual of a child dealing with marriage, divorce and re-marriage, who is now, herself, an adult with her own family, The images express a compassion toward the both fathers. It is both a public reconciliation and a personal optimistic message to a viewer.
FN1 Keliy Anderson-Staley is an Assistant Professor in the School of Art at the University of Houston. She has previously taught photography at other universities and at the Center for Alternative Photography in New York City
FN2 See my blog post of May 2015 on the talk by Naoya Hatakeyama on his series of his post-tsunami home town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Perfecture, Japan for another discussion on viewing photographs as an independent observer without a personal connection to the place or event.
FN3 From the Lawndale Art Center “On View” exhibition pamphlet of May 8-June 13,2015. Artist Statement written by Keliy Anderson-Staley.
FN4 As in the Hatakeyama series mentioned above, personal vintage photographs, never intended for public viewing, were recreated and used as part of the photographer’s narrative, giving those images a special, unexpected pivotal role to create context for unimagined future images.
FN5 See Keliy’s website at http://www.andersonstaley.com