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Synchronized Rituals

Military and Spiritual Practice in the Work of Andrew Jarman and Carol Isaak

The two Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week, Portland natives Andrew Jarman and Carol Isaak, explore different types of ritual: Jarman photographs members of the Oregon National Guard aviation unit performing exercises during training in his 2014 series Hurry Up and Wait, while Isaak documents two distinct religious groups engaged in prayer. Both photographers, although examining disparate settings, question the ways in which verbal and unspoken cues affect ritual movements, investigating harmony and dissonance in transitory spaces.

Firing Weapon, Yakima, Washington, by Andrew Jarman (2014)

In Hurry Up and Wait, Andrew Jarman documents the daily lives of the Oregon National Guard. The photographs show visually familiar practices, referencing the tropes of war photography: guardsmen fly planes, crouch behind guns, and scramble over treacherous terrain. However, the lonely background of the stark Eastern Oregon and Washington landscapes, and the complete absence of any enemy, marks the images as clearly not part of the expected narrative of war journalism: no blood stains the guardsmen’s hands, and their expressions often seem more reflective (see “Returning to Biak, Blackhawk Helicopter”) than aggressive. Jarman notes the setting’s transitory nature in the title, stating: “‘Hurry up and wait’ is an expression that was used throughout training when joking about punctuality and preparedness for exercises and courses. Many of the moments I capture fluctuate between two ends of this motto, while sometimes getting stuck in-between.” The images largely exist in this intermediary state, as Jarman also articulates the importance of verbal cues in the military and their omission in these images: “while the physical actions of the guardsmen are distinct, the commands being given and the narrative surrounding their actions are undefined.” Because of this disconnect between the orders being verbalized and the images presented to the viewer, the photographs become more suggestive, gesturing at underlying meanings rather than asserting any singular message.

Morning Workout, by Andrew Jarman (2014)

This is particularly apparent when considered in light of the history of gender relations in US military history. One image, “Firing Weapon, Yakima, Washington,” shows a guardsman aiming a gun into the empty, dry abyss. Bullet casings can be seen shattering in the air in front of him. The phallic symbol of the gun exploding, and the viewer’s position behind and below the figure, imply themes of masculinity and individualism, reflecting the historically hyper-masculine culture of the military and the limitations for women within it. A second image, “Morning Workout,” pictures two guardsmen, one female and one male, together on the empty quad with arms outstretched towards a blank sky. The two figures don’t look to be exerting any effort, and the motion in this moment looks less like a jumping jack and more like a pause between yoga poses; they seem to be involved in some sort of joint ritual. Unlike the first image, this photograph suggests both unity and tension through synchronized, awkward movements, gesturing ambiguously towards the military’s gender politics, but provoking more questions than answers.

Private Supplication, by Carol Isaak (2014)

Inspired by the Light, by Carol Isaak (2014)

This theme of ritual and repose also marks the work of Carol Isaak, who takes portraits of people performing spiritual exercises in a series from 2014. Her work focuses on the religious practices of two different groups: first, Muslims worshipping in Istanbul, and second, Christians during Ethiopian Orthodox Lent in Addis Ababa. Though Isaak notes the differences between the actions of the two groups, the consistent visual vocabulary that she uses seems to collapse the boundaries between them: her fascination with light shapes created by stained glass windows, as well as the layers of texture and pattern in different tapestries, give the visual narrative a cohesion that suggests an even larger practice of spiritual coordination across borders and barriers. “Private Supplication” shows a man crouched on a patterned carpet, with a square of light cast beside him from an unseen window. The light imprint serves as a metaphor for a spiritual presence, especially when both the window casting the shadow and the sun are absent from the image, literally elevated above the figure in prayer. Though the man is alone in his practice, the collection of images of prayer within Isaak’s body of work, and the ways in which the poses of the figures echo one another, suggests harmonious unity. A second image, “Inspired by the Light,” shows two men facing a window, in a richly colored and decorated room with layers of intricate patterns. Electric lights hang from the ceiling, some glowing and some dark, becoming part of the ritual in their arrangement of pattern and repetition. Isaak’s work shows a fascination with what goes unspoken, with the spiritual implications of a series of movements; this dovetails with Jarman’s work, which fixates on what is spoken but remains silent in the photographic image. Both series examine the intricacies of ritual movements, through military or spiritual exercises, exploring the transient spaces between words.

-Molly Walls

Subversive Text

Titles and Signage in the Work of Stewart Harvey and Tamar Haytayan

The two Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week are Stewart Harvey and Tamar Haytayan. Keeping with the precedent set by last week’s blog post, I am looking at the ways their images, although different, complement and parallel one another. On first look, their photography blatantly contrasts with one another. Harvey pictures American scenes, especially interactions between strangers, often in an urban environment, while Haytayan focuses on the domestic space that her son and daughter inhabit and the ways they interact with each other. Both photographers, however, use text in ways that subvert or complicate their visual narratives, such as with Harvey’s incorporation of signage and Haytayan’s use of the series title Innocence.

 

The photographs of Stewart Harvey, from his project Ephemeral Views, show instances of modern American life: in the tradition of Robert Frank, they show people interacting, in environments both iconic and quotidian, such as hippies dancing at Burning Man, crowds of tourists and locals walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and Portlanders waving the Timbers Army banner. In the first photograph, “Bourbon Street Encounter,” from 2013, a woman in a satin outfit with a wide-brimmed, translucent hat turns away from the viewer, disproportionately large because of her proximity to the camera. Instead of her face, we see that of a man walking towards her, the sunlight over the tops of buildings illuminating him. The title leads to the question: what encounter are we witnessing? We are, of course, witnessing more than one: that between the photographer and the scene, between the two figures, between the buildings, the light, and the burgeoning crowd behind them that will dissipate in an instant. In several of Harvey’s images, text adds to this layered narrative: a sign beside the woman’s head advertises “HUGE ASS BEERS,” and restaurants list their menu offerings. Flags line the block, both American and those of many other nationalities, showing the modern urban environment as one where cultures collide and intermingle endlessly. The next image, “Photochapel Couple” from 2013, employs text to gesture at underlying meaning. It shows two figures approaching a structure that displays photographs, presumably for sale. Beside the structure, a sign reads: “PHOTOCHAPEL IS FRAGILE.” The image again manipulates perspective: the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the strange images stored in the object itself, disoriented to realize that they are, in fact, photographic prints on display. Though the warning of fragility relays the literal instability of the shrine-like structure, it also suggests other meanings: “chapel” points to the reliquary-like presentation of the prints themselves, but the word “fragile” complicates, and perhaps undermines, this elevated nature. This aligns with the questioning of the truth claim in Harvey’s images, through manipulations of space and proportion that subvert the supposed verisimilitude of the photographic image.

 

Though Tamar Haytayan’s images focus on the private sphere and the relationship between her daughter and son, the work also expands in meaning through text: each image is titled “Innocence,” while often picturing the darker, grittier sides of childhood. For instance, the first photograph, “Innocence 5,” from 2012, shows her daughter with a towel on her head in the kitchen, her face curled up in an indignant snarl. The foreground and background are shrouded in heavy black and the camera is slightly tilted, giving the image a disorienting, almost nightmarish quality. The literal darkness of the image, combined with the discomfort of the subject and the strange camera angle, undermines the ideal of purity, creating instead a more complex, often fearful and angry, depiction of childhood. The second image, “Innocence 1,” shows one of the artist’s  children’s hands draped over the lip of the bathtub. Grit lines the fingernails, and the monochromatic nature of the print masks the color of the hand: it could be muddied with dirt, but its dismembered quality suggests something more violent. Not all of Haytayan’s photographs fixate on such darkness: one image, “Innocence 7,” pictures a hug between the two siblings, with soft, sleepy light; “Innocence 2” shows her son with sun through the window illuminating his bright eyes, giving his face a painterly, classical quality. However, the two on display this week do highlight a trend in her work to subvert traditional ideas of childhood innocence, alluding to contemporaries like Sally Mann and harkening back to pictorialists such as Julia Margaret Cameron.

Both Drawers photographers on display this week incorporate text in ways that challenge the traditional duality of text and image, integrating them through literal photographs or through titles, and thus allowing the work to expand in meaning.

- Molly Walls

Streetlight Landscapes

The Surreal Work of Andrew Hartzell and Ed Hamilton

With this post, Blue Sky is proud to introduce Molly Walls, a summer intern from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She will post a new piece here weekly over the course of her internship, each time looking closely at two photographers featured in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers cohort. We welcome Molly to the blog, and we welcome you to come discover these and many other compelling photographs at Blue Sky this summer.

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As an intern, along with working on exhibitions in the galleries, I’ve become interested in the unique ongoing project of Blue Sky’s Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers (“Drawers”). Founded in 2007 when the gallery moved to its current location, the Drawers program features a yearly juried installment of photography, selected from an open call for entries to artists living in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Montana. Each chosen artist shows ten original prints, which are kept inside large, flat file drawers. The project allows for innovative photography to reach a wider audience, showcasing many diverse bodies of work, selected this year by jurors Shane Lavalette, of Light Work in Syracuse, New York, and Prudence Roberts, writer, curator, and professor at Portland Community College. Every week, we highlight two photographers from the Drawers by placing two selected images from each on a pair of wooden easels on top of the Drawers. Though the Drawers photographs are sorted alphabetically by artist, and therefore, any similarities between the two artists that share a drawer are purely coincidental, the pairings do often have thematic harmony (as former Blue Sky intern Jason Horvath noted aptly in his blog posts on the subject). The two artists on display this week, in particular, have remarkable parallels: both Andrew Hartzell and Edward Hamilton’s bodies of work are photographed entirely at night; they also show a preoccupation with electric light and with  urban and suburban landscape.

            

Hartzell’s photographs, from his series Stars and the Electric Glow, address the relationship between electric and natural light, picturing the two together: these moments reveal, rather than blatant opposition, mimicry between the two forces. The first of the two selected images, “An Unfamiliar Glow of Streetlights,” from 2013, shows a forest below a road; orange streetlights emit a warm glow between the trees. A bright spot of light near the center of the image could be either one of these streetlights or the sun itself rising above the hill, as the photo collapses the boundaries between natural and artificial through repetition in form and color. In the second photograph, “There’s a Freeway Running through the Yard,” from 2012, taken below an overpass, orange orbs from streetlamps light the edges of hanging tree branches. This silhouetting effect recalls the way the sun or moon might glow through plant life, but the artificiality of the electric lamps gives the scene an uncanny, almost Lynchian glow. In Hartzell’s scenes, not only do manmade and natural light intermingle, but also manmade and natural landscape, such as with the trees scattered below the roadside in the first image, and the concrete structures looming beyond the forest in the second. Part of the eerie strangeness of Hartzell’s images comes from the transitional time of day that most of them were taken: an ambiguous gloaming between night and day, perhaps before sunrise but maybe after sunset. This ethereal mood, rather than having a harsh or jarring effect, creates a sort of romantic strangeness, like how putting Vaseline over a camera’s lens dreamily warps an image with flares of light.

  

Though the subject matter of Edward Hamilton’s series Eastside Walkabout parallels Hartzell’s, his images show a sharp focus and use of line that is notably un-romantic. Taken around Southeast Portland, his nightscapes feature a surreal, sometimes nightmarish, urban setting. In the first of the two selected pictures, “Mirror,” from 2014, empty school busses line a vacant street, their darkened windows and rigid repetition giving them an almost sinister quality. A mirror near the top of the photograph reflects an empty parking lot somewhere behind the viewer, suggesting paranoia and the sense of being watched. The electric light in these images does not mimic or echo anything natural, but rather takes on a digitized, futuristic hue, giving each scene a subdued sense of foreboding reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The second selected image, “Springwater,” from 2014,  shows a bike path, streaked with light trails, beside a looming water tower, bordered by a chainlink fence caked with rust. The bursts of light, though obviously emitted by a biker or jogger and captured through a slow shutter speed, take on a shape and form of their own, dynamic and vaguely supernatural. Light from the street lamps above the pathway trails off in swooping streaks, rope-like and jolting into the sky. The orange tint of the image accentuates the strange, ghostly mood; the position of the viewer below the water tower enforces the earlier sense of being monitored.

A Proclamation: Blue Sky Books

Blue Sky Books, photo: Christopher Rauschenberg

Whereas Blue Sky Gallery is now in its fortieth year of exhibiting great photography,

Whereas the Portland Art Museum has just opened a major exhibition looking at Blue Sky and its importance in the history of photography,

Whereas Blue Sky has actually been around and showing work for more than 20% of the history of photography,

Whereas Blue Sky has produced 767 exhibitions of work by 650 of the best photographers in the world during that time,

Whereas too many of these great bodies of work have never been published in book form,

Whereas the book has always been, for photography, the most important transmission vector of ideas and new ways of seeing the world,

Whereas Blue Sky has never outgrown the populism and exuberance of its Seventies roots,

Therefore Blue Sky has, on this day, simultaneously published 37 monographic books by 37 great photographers that we’ve shown during the past four decades. These books are available only online and they are startlingly cheap. (They’re about one quarter the price of most photo books today.) This series of books are produced and distributed by harnessing the power of internet age print-on-demand capabilities and the combined social networks of Blue Sky and the 37 photographers. It’s the dawn of a new way of creating Great Books by Great Photographers at Great Prices, powered by elbow grease (an artist specialty) instead of huge piles of money (not an artist specialty). Check out all 37 at www.blueskygallery.org/books and spread the word.

The books showcase the work of Justyna Badach, Karl Baden, Mary Berridge, Lucy Capehart, Susan Dobson, Beth Dow, Pedro Farias-Nardi, Mary Frey, Patricia Galagan, Eduardo Gil, Ford Gilbreath, Rita Godlevskis, Ken Graves & Eva Lipman, (Christine for) Gary Grenell, M. Bruce Hall, Craig Hickman, Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Kent Krugh, Alejandra Laviada, Pedro Lobo, Allen Maertz, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Bill McCullough, Julie Mihaly, Suzanne Opton, Christine Osinski, M. Alexis Pike, David Pace, Gail Rebhan, Greta Pratt, Shawn Records, Soody Sharifi, Danny Treacy, Seth Thompson, Joe Vitone, Susan Weil & José Betancourt, and Albert Winn.

In the words of series editor Christopher Rauschenberg, “We’ve got portraits, landscapes, street photography and family rituals, mythologies, quirkiness and pathology. We’ve got soldiers, civilians, bachelors, Haitian workers, Moslem youth, synchronized swimmers, people dressed as the statue of liberty, people holding snapshots, and people scarily dressed in rubbish. We have pictures from Russia, Cuba, Mexico, India, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, small town Oregon, and Canadian suburbs. We’ve got projects about prison cells, proms, English gardens, Judaism, weddings, museums, and AIDS. We’ve got blueprints, pre-Photoshop shenanigans, plastic camera pictures, stereographs, photographic sculpture, scanners used as cameras, pictures made with hand-held fishtank cameras, and trees seen from every direction at once. Half of the books are by women artists and all of them are great.”

Finding Home in Havana

If you have to travel halfway across the world to make an interesting picture, you’re probably not an artist. That’s what I tell people who show me their photographs of sweet-faced children, careworn workers, and colorfully dressed celebrants from some other region, some other culture. It’s easy enough to capture the surface differences between people and their ways of life and it’s easy enough to project meaning onto them based on our own perceptions, assumptions, or cravings. But it is difficult indeed to use the camera to show what’s underneath that surface of difference, difficult to use it to show something that feels more true about the subject than about the viewer, difficult to locate something individual that is also shared. Maybe it is only possible to reveal something that is true for both the subject and the viewer, something we have in common about being human.

Photographing in Havana on several visits, Patricia Galagan was duly seduced by the city’s visual appeal, a feature that has made it a popular destination for American photographers in recent decades. Her street views show the Cuban capital’s extraordinary juxtapositions of opulence and decay, exuberance and restraint, searing light and suggestive shadows. Her photographs of vendors begin to explore what makes this city and its residents tick, and her shots of interior spaces search still deeper into the spirit of this long-sheltered place. Adding to this multi-part portrait of Havana is Galagan’s series Objects of Desire, in which the artist relinquishes her role as an observer and more actively engages with her subjects.

To create this group of portraits, the artist invited individuals to be photographed in their familiar surroundings and to include something of personal significance in the photograph. Like the attributes of saints – St. Francis and his birds, St. Isidore and his plow – our earthly possessions are markers for who we are, the visible manifestations of what is most cherished. Don’t we all have treasures that light up our world because of what they represent? Whatever our daily circumstances, these objects are reliquaries for our memories and our dreams, offering tangible evidence of our distinctiveness and thereby binding us together in the commonality of our desire to be special.

By having her subjects choose what to display, the artist opens up a channel for communication and understanding, a pathway of connection between her and them, between them and us. One possible cultural difference that readily emerges in the portraits is that many of the participants selected another person or animal to be in the picture, not an object. And several of the objects chosen are pictures of people. Is it the result of Galagan’s subjects having little in the way of material possessions? Is the result of a culture that values family and personal relationships more deeply than material goods? Any answer I come up with is laden with my own personal and cultural biases. Yet the images resonate with a powerful sense of attachment and connection that I recognize. I don’t know these people or their lives but I know these feelings.

My ancestors, my faith, my occupation, my neighborhood, my collection, my companions; by sharing these precious things I show you who I am and who I want to be. We are here for just a while and we want it to mean something. The steps I walk to the kitchen, my love for you, the trust of a child, all these things have changed the world a little bit, all these things have mattered, regardless of what else is going on in the world. In Havana and in Portland and in Santa Fe, these are the things that make a life for all of us. And in that case, it’s okay to go all the way to Cuba to remind us that the most important objects of desire are right here at home.

Katherine Ware, Curator of Photography
New Mexico Museum of Art
April 2014