In the 2015 Critical Mass 50 (CM50) of Photo Lucida, there were many fine photographers and works that exhibited imagination and creativity. I had the privilege of being one of the judges where three photographers caught my attention. This is the first of a three part article discussing how each of these three photographers give a viewer a vision of the world through a different set of eyes. Each artist has a way of expressing a message and helping us see the world differently going beyond the literal mechanical capture of an image, whether on film or digitally. This first article, or commentary as I refer to these, is about the work of Jackson Patterson and his series “Recollected Memories” from which three images were selected to discuss.
Jackson Patterson is combining images using a photo collage/photomontage technique to create a constructed narrative. He explains: “Through photomontage 1 I am exploring the narrative that emerges between subject, space and time. 2 The work reflects various photographs that I have taken merged with others from my family’s albums. … the cultural influence of our country’s migration west, and the personal history of family. Each blended piece possesses its own original story, in addition to insights about representation, fabrication, and visual language. They are human stories intertwined in a majestic landscape.” 3 Photomontage, or Photo Collage as it is also referred, was practiced in the earliest days of photography. “The first and most famous mid-Victorian photomontage (then called combination printing) was "The Two Ways of Life" (1857) by Oscar Rejlander, followed shortly thereafter by the images of photographer Henry Peach Robinson such as "Fading Away" (1858).” 4 Some of the most well-known works like this were developed during the Dada 5 movement in Europe, including such artists of this period as John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch, El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko. While often political in nature, these artists led the way in exploring the compilation of photographic images together or with other media to present a point of view.
How images are combined can also convey a different message to the viewer. What if the images are side-by-side or as in this case embedded into each other? If side-by-side, its a comparison of two stories, that may or may not be related. There may be contrasting themes. With embedded images, the visual narrative seems to become one intimately related story. Patterson is embedding one or more images into one larger image, so we start by assuming there is one narrative that is being illustrated for us. We cannot tell how the technical combination of the images was made. A photo collage can be made by combining images within a darkroom 6, or action within photoshop or the actual physical cutting and pasting of images together on a surface to create a layered composite 7, or perhaps then photographed to be a single flat image. It is a point of interest to know what technique was used, but not important for appreciating what is in the image. The technique is important in that it can affect how we interact with the image when we can stand before it in the same physical space and see whether there is one surface to the image, or different image surfaces melded into one.
In the first image, titled “Red Barn”, we have a road splitting into two directions on a flat landscape heading towards hills, maybe mountains, in a distant background under a slightly cloudy sky. One notices right away that the image is black and white, yet it is titled “Red Barn”, as if the viewer can see the color, which they cannot. The road splits to either side of the barn. The tone of the landscape reminds me of the work of Robert Adams, a photographer of the American West and its changing landscape. 8 Off in the distant landscape there is a row of power line towers faintly visible. Its clear that the image of the barn is not part of the landscape. It is on its own plane or surface within the image. The artists gives the impression that the image of the barn has been mounted onto a large canvas and set up within this flat space of land between the split in the road. There are guide wires visible on either side of the barn. However, the “guide wires” in the image that anchor and hold the barn image upright seem to be scratched into the image and connected in the far distance to two of the power line towers. Within the image of the barn are five people. Three appear to be walking into the barn, while two others are walking around the barn to the right. Nothing tells us where these scenes are located, why the people are there, and what is the relevance of the barn to the space or the people. We also don’t know if the images were photographed a few days ago, or many years prior.
Patterson tells us in his artist statement that he appropriated some of the images from a family album 9, and by inserting them into different settings, is visually manipulating “subject, space and time”. One might assume that the people in the image of the barn are family. Given the setting is pleasant, the weather stable, only slightly cloudy, we assume this is a good time being remembered. It is possible that the barn used to be in this place and is no longer there because it was torn down or collapsed from lack of maintenance. In either case, the implication is that there is some connection between the barn and the landscape. Of course, the absolute reverse could be just as true. The barn may be newly installed into this space, and obstructing the view he and his family once had of a flat, open landscape with an unobstructed view into the distant hills, albeit still obstructed by the distant power lines crossing the property, probably through the exercise of “eminent domain”. 10
The viewer can take many messages from this image beyond what is literally seen. Why a split road going off into a distant horizon where we cannot see exactly where the road is going? It might be a metaphor for the passage of time and choices we make. Everyday we make choices that force us onto one road or another into an uncertain, unclear future. Why the barn? That probably had some personal meaning for the photographer, but for the viewer, we think of a barn as related to a farm and the raising of animals and crops. There is the old adage that we are either hunters or gatherers. If we are gatherers, we are no longer nomadic but settled. We are setting roots in one place and raising families and supporting others. The five people in the image walking into the barn, as opposed to away from it, reinforces this sort of interpretation.
The viewer might never know exactly what the photographer had in mind, but that is not important. What is important is that we have an image where we initially have a pleasing visual reaction. That reaction then allows us to stop and look more deeply into the image to see what is there and appreciate the artist’s illustration of “subject, space and time”. Finally, what is important, is that the image allows us the freedom to develop our own interpretation and imagination to take us into the image and relate to it in our own way.
The second image is titled “Elevator Point”. A first reaction is that Elevator Point is not a real place named “elevator point”; but, a created, fictional, imagined place. 11 It is a combination of a photograph taken from a rather high elevation overlooking the ocean, with a photograph of a glass elevator or elevator shaft inserted. Through the glass elevator we look through to a large parking lot area running off into the internal horizon. There is a lone person, perhaps a young man, standing on the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean and look towards this glass elevator window, into the urban lined and spaced infinite car parking lot. It appears that he, too, is inserted into the image. He seems to be standing in waist high grass near the cliff’s edge, which may or may not be the reality of what was there. Next to the elevator shaft and just beyond the edge is a very full tree. It appears to be a pine or of a similar conifer genus. It is not clear if the tree was originally part of the cliff/ocean landscape, part of the glass elevator shaft image, or cleverly inserted. Regardless, the young man in the image, with his hands behind his back in a state of contemplation, may be also looking in the direction of the tree that is blocking part of the view. The rest of the view out and over the ocean is obstructed by fog or clouds. Only a hint of a shore line is evident beyond the cliff’s edge.
While many photographers have taken pictures from high above an ocean, Patterson’s black and white image and composition, again, reminds me of the work of Robert Adams in his book “West From The Columbia”. 12 What is even more intriguing comes from the opening quote to Adams’ book: “The sea is as near as we come to another world (Anne Stevenson)”. With this image, Patterson has given us a scene with another view (or world) inserted into it.
Into what world then has the artist invited the viewer? Presumably, there is some connection with this cliff and ocean vista to pleasant family memories. Many of us have a favorable sense of being at the ocean, on a cliff, experiencing a foggy morning, cool breeze, and the salted air. The window through the glass elevator is an invitation into another world or setting. The cliff itself transitions from a vista into a barrier between nature as we remember it, and the westward encroachment of development and our cities. The expansive parking lot reminds us of our heavy reliance on cars and fuels. While both scenes are overcast, we can see farther into the distance in the parking lot than we can from the cliff. A viewer could read that contrast a few ways. Is the artist suggesting that our vision of the ocean is blocked more by smog than fog? Or, alternatively, is the glass elevator a view into a future with cleaner air and fewer cars, rather than more, since the lot is relatively empty? Was it a conscious choice of the photographer to have both a fog covered ocean view from the cliff, and a overcast yet, clearer path of vision over the huge somewhat sparsely occupied endless parking lot? The tree also may play a role in how we engage in the image. The tree is there alone on the edge off the cliff. There are no other trees, so a viewer may be uncertain whether to attribute any significance to its presence in the image, and its placement, just over the edge of the cliff, and seemingly part of the glass elevator shaft image. Yet another view is the young man in the image looking over a familiar setting, but with his mind wandering back to his daily grind and work. He is thinking not of the great view and smells of the ocean, and forests (represented by the lone tree), but has drifted back to his responsibilities, work and commuting. Perhaps the parking lot is no more than a reminder of work. Possibly it is sparsely filled because most people are away of some national holiday, and will return. Like many of us, we can never completely leave our obligations and responsibilities behind. It may be that Patterson is reminding us to enjoy where we are when away from our normal daily work setting, and not drift backwards. It is for these reasons that Patterson’s “Elevator Point” image is successful in challenging us with “subject, space and time”. We can take it literally, or allow ourselves to engage and come to our own interpretation.
His third image, and last of the series that this Commentary will cover, is titled “Sacred”. Because of the title, we assume the space is a church, temple or mosque. There is a lack of images in the windows commonly associated with a Christian Church with its stained glass windows and representations of Saints and scenes with people from the bible. There is also a lack of pews or seating that would be found in different arrangements in a church or temple. The large hall in the image, and the calligraphy on the walls indicates a mosque. 13 Very evident in the center of the image and the space depicted is a large light or chandelier, which may also be characteristic of a mosque in this sort of configuration. 14 Regardless, this space is not corporate, industrial or residential. Its openness and benches along the periphery indicates a large hall for a social or religious purpose. We don’t know where the space is located, but it may have meaning for the artist. In Patterson’s artist statement, he says he has extracted images from his family albums. Its unclear which of the two scenes in the composition comes from the family album. Here, it may be the scene with the mountain range and dramatic clouds with the bright sunlight illuminating the center of the image. There appears to be third element. There is an white haired man walking through the landscape space on what appears to be a road. It is then possible that the “family” element in this collage is the man walking through the space. The size and perspective of the man is out of place in relation to the mountains in the background. The man appears to be carrying something, a bag perhaps. He wears an overcoat, yet the scene in the background looks more desert like than wintery. We don’t know where he is walking from or to? Given he is placed on a road that looks like a well paved highway, he is not just wandering. He came from somewhere and, given what expression we can see, is intent on going somewhere. We then must ask ourselves about the relationship between the building space, the mountains, and the man.
Again, Patterson has given us a image that, below its surface, is rather complex. He has given us a lot of room to visually and intellectually wander. Given the tremendously bright light on the clouds in the mountains, we sense, and associate, a religious or spiritual presence. This is also true, given the larger space in which the smaller image has been placed. The man walking though the space might be the pivotal piece in the visual puzzle. The man could be traveling from one country to another. Or, it could be symbolic of his, or our own, journey through life. Accompanying him, or us, on that journey might be our spiritual beliefs, if we have any. The message by the artist might be that those beliefs, embedded in us or others by organized religion, represented by the massive building, form a core of beliefs or rules that we can’t walk away from, and that always accompany us on any journey. Alternatively, the man in the image may be walking away from those beliefs, as he is walking away from the brightly highlighted clouds over the mountain and not towards them. The man’s image could have been on the right of the insert to imply movement toward the light on the mountain, so to speak, rather than on the left side, where he appears to be walking away.
This image, as the other two, has given us “subject, space and time” to work with. Patterson commented to me that: “[The] world today is given to us. We no longer think through things, we just Google it.” These images do challenge the viewer. We are not told what to see, but with examination, have ample clues to use, and see the image differently. Jackson Patterson has stimulated our imagination and given us permission to exercise our thinking.
Parts 2 and 3 will follow, discussing the work of two other artists that have created different photographically based works. Your comments on this or the other articles are welcome. Please share this article with others who may be interested.