While I was growing up my family moved with alarming regularity. My father, a retail clothing buyer and manager was frequently transferred and consequently our family found ourselves moving from Portland to Seattle to Los Angeles and back again at the whim of the rag business. By the time I graduated from High School I attended a total of eight schools in the span most kids go to three and I’d lived in ten different homes. Family photos were abundant and our histories in each house were duly recorded and treasured. Throughout Junior High and High School I began to cherish the school yearbook as a way of retaining memory of each place and the people I cared about within those places. In typical pubescent fashion, it was also a way of wallowing in misery in coping with loss and rootlessness. The byproduct of all this was that I found I often knew the names and two-dimensional faces of everyone in each yearbook even though the majority were barely acquaintances.
As a photo editor living in Los Angeles it is not uncommon to find myself seated in a restaurant adjacent to someone who I knew only by virtue of the fact I had assigned or taken a portrait of them at one point or another. In the case of actors or sports figures with public faces like Hilary Swank or Javier Bardem or Kobe Byrant, recognition is obvious. With other subjects such as a Nobel Prize winning scientist or a best selling author or cutting edge architect, well, that was different. Their faces might not be so default famous. Did I know them? Were they friends, I’d half forgotten? If so, from which city? From which yearbook? Did I go to college with them? I once ran into an old college mate in the middle of the Yucatan jungle, so I know it’s possible to re-cross paths in unlikely places.
Knowing someone’s face without knowing the person makes for an extremely one-sided relationship. I recognize them, but in an uncomfortably familiar way. After all, I’ve stared at every follicle trying to make a clean edit. I know their faces too well. I often have to flip through a mental notebook to determine why I felt I knew them without knowing them. I always remember eventually and then everything I knew about them runs through my mind. They’re ordering a nice arugula salad and the sea bass and I’m recalling which street they live on and whether they were witty or kind. I must be careful and avoid small talk as though we’re old friends when the person may well be a film director or the designer of an electric car. Knowing is not always knowing. I was touring an open house recently when I ran into the author James Ellroy and we did a not-so-subtle eyeing of each other across the worn-out kitchen until we realized we did in fact know each other. In that case I had taken photographs for James’ memoir “My Dark Places,” some years ago after initially meeting on assignment. That relationship was more deeply forged and small talk was warranted. I didn’t have to feel like a voyeur to say “hello, how are you?”
At Fotofest in Houston I finished a post portfolio review drink and found myself chatting with a table of photographers in the lobby bar. I was delighted when Cynthia Greig introduced herself, as I am quite fond of her work. Her photographs of familiar traditional still life arrangements are not unlike those that adorned my mother’s walls in each of our suburban houses, but whitewashed and stripped of most color, altering their dimension and straddling a world somewhere between painting and photography. I think she was generally floored at my recognition; much less the fact that I once considered showing her photographs until I realized she already had representation in Los Angeles. Greig is based in Detroit and I imagine getting exposure is somewhat tough in the world beyond. Even so, I’d seen the work previously and added her to my list of people I felt were doing something unique in the medium. Meeting her in Texas seemed to me a random lucky fluke, yet these photo events put us all together in ever expanding concentric circles.
Digital access to photography has also made discoveries that were once challenging now commonplace. The artists and their work are not less special, but the hard won nature of finding significant art and artists in the past allowed presenters of work to feel accomplished in finding an exceptional discovery. The sense that I’m not alone now as I search the equivalent of that school yearbook makes the act of locating distinguished artwork more of an uphill battle. Pouring over assignment contact sheets in the past was an act conducted in solitude, without audience or competition. Today there are thousands of others alongside, somewhere in the digital ether, clicking “like” with their morning coffee. I do find work that I’m fond of, but I miss the joy of what once felt like an exclusive hunt.
The intimacy of viewing the art with artist at hand and stepping out of the two-dimensional into a live experience seems to be the best way of dissipating the overwhelming nature of mass access. And so the chance introduction to Cynthia Greig created the opportunity to meet again on the occasion of her exhibition at Santa Monica’s dnj Gallery. Showing through June 2, 2012, Nature Morte is well worth a visit.
Cynthia Greig’s statement regarding the work follows:
“I’m fascinated by the persuasive power of the photograph, and its unique role in negotiating what we believe to be real or true.
Nature Morte revisits the tradition of still life to explore photography’s relationship to the vanitas themes of death, decay, and transience while meditating on the nature of reality and illusion. Exploiting the camera’s monocular point of view, I create two-dimensional photographic documents of three-dimensional drawings, rendering physical objects to first appear as crude and simple outlines. The photographs deny expectations to encourage the observation of subtle detail as a means to examine the deceptive nature of appearance and the presumed transparency of the photographic image. Muted colors emanate from beneath the whitewashed flesh of fruit; drawn charcoal outlines and shadows fix moments in fictional time; defining lines warp, wrinkle and decay with the organic matter they represent. The accompanying videos further explore time’s capacity to unfold and reveal the illusory nature of appearance.
I make images that embrace both the limitations and possibilities of photography. They prompt essential questions about the nature of reality as well as the medium itself: what do we expect a photograph to look like? To what degree are our beliefs and realities based on appearances and misconceptions? Nature Morte investigates the malleability of representation and identity and the potential for reconfiguring the physical and imagined boundaries we impose upon the world.”