The Elusive Present
Monograph essay by Allison Grant, assistant curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
This book opens with Alice Hargrave’s foreboding image Tropical Storm (2014). On the horizon a dark storm, wild and powerful, casts an otherwise picture-perfect beach in shades of deep ochre, with only a sliver of glassy blue ocean about to be swallowed in the shadows of the clouds. The picture reads as an image of transition, a remnant of paradise slipping into a disquieting inverted reality. Liminal scenes such as this one, where vestiges of an idyllic landscape are placed in tension with a dark alternative, anchor Paradise Wavering (2010−2016)—a series of photographs that intersect with the intricate beauty and elemental intensity of the natural world, and offer moments of placid meditation on the past and the future from within the elusive present.
Hargrave has spent the past five years traveling and photographing in prairies, mangrove swamps, tropical forests, and other exotic locales, as well as in urban forest preserves and other places she encounters closer to home. Immersing herself in these landscapes, she detaches from her ordinary life, using her camera and the sensuous terrain of the land as her guideposts. She arranges the resulting color-soaked pictures alongside near-abstract photos taken in moments of domestic reverie and rephotographed vernacular snapshots of wildlife borrowed from her own vintage family albums and home movies. Also included are pictures of residual objects and materials from both her art practice and her husband’s, which she repurposes into formal studies.
Collectively, the varied images form a wandering narrative resonant with similarities between the timeless, cyclical rhythms of the natural world and the banal moments of daily life where glints of memory and artistic inspiration materialize. Physical space becomes a psychic space for Hargrave. Her images compellingly touch on the experience of being lost in thought, as well as the potential to express introspection and the impetus to ponder the richness of the cosmos.
These themes of contemplation can be seen not only in the subject matter of Hargrave’s photographs but also in their misty palette, which intentionally refers both to the haze of memory and to historic film processes. Hargrave is particularly inspired by the Autochrome, an early color process developed in 1903 by the Lumière brothers. It was a revelation in its time, even though it inaccurately translates color intensity, leaving many images washed in shades of brown with pops of vibrant blues, greens, and magentas. Many of Hargrave’s images mimic this look through her use of in-camera exposure techniques and her careful alteration of color during post-production and the printing process. The pictures also recall the amber tone of Polaroids and the saturated chroma of Kodachromes, two analog processes that further revolutionized color photography but have now, like the Autochrome, become obsolete.
Hargrave distills attributes of these various film stocks as part of a process that emphasizes the act of photographing as one of translation rather than capture. Using the sophisticated control and interpretive freedom available to artists as they transcribe the three-dimensional world onto two-dimensional photosensitive substrates, she sidesteps photography’s decades-long pursuit of updating technology so that it might better record the real. Instead, she converts the unique colorations that arise during photochemical reactions into images replete with raw emotion. Still photographs are illusions that never truly arrest the experience of the moving world. Hargrave uses the medium as poetry rather than document and creates an analogue for the ungraspable forms of awareness encountered in life’s most sublime moments.
An undertone of extinction can be sensed not only in Hargrave’s references to historic photographic techniques, but also in her intentional intersection with themes of environmental degradation. Her haunting imagery at times feels awash in chemical shades that evoke a world altered by human activities. In Biosphere #1 (2015) a thick grove of tropical trees appears ashen, suggesting the aftermath of some cataclysmic event. Blue Skies #3 (2013) feels similarly affected by some unseen situation. For Hargrave, the dark, intense moments of her project echo the colors and tone of transformed ecosystems. References to the vanishing richness of wild environs are also at play in pictures of African wildlife interspersed throughout the series. Hargrave made the images during an excursion in 1982, but they carry two dates: the first, the year the photo was taken; and the second, 2015, the year the image was remade for this project. The double dates cause the pictures to straddle space and time, speaking to what is retained as well as what is lost when one studies an old photograph and mulls over summoned memories. The bracketed time span also suggests Hargrave’s own changing experience of events and imagery over time, as well as the continuous transformation of the sites depicted across decades. With environmental pressures steadily increasing throughout the world, the photographs seem to foreshadow the continued loss of habitat and animal populations, a dark reality that sits alongside the pictures’ tranquility and beauty.
The image titles in the series further allow the meanings of each picture to traverse space and time. Rather than offering specific information about the places depicted, they only vaguely describe each scene. The ambiguity is intentional. Unmoored from the specificity of a named place, the images are not beholden to previously delineated meanings about particular locations or the rigidity of linear time. Instead, image after image opens up to discovery and lucid drifting, calling forth complex questions about how humans perceive time, measure time, record time, and remember times past—as well as how we imagine the future. In this pursuit, Hargrave makes clear one of the quintessential realities of human experience: the vivid, real, lived circumstances of being present in a place cannot be preserved. Time cannot be stopped, and experience cannot be captured. The present immediately yields to the past. Change is inherent in nature, and the swirling nature of our perceptions moves right alongside, engulfed and apart.
—Allison Grant, assistant curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
The Periphery Is What Interests Me:
A Conversation Between Alice Hargrave and Kendra Paitz
Kendra Paitz is senior curator at University Galleries of Illinois State University
Kendra Paitz: I enjoyed reading your Paradise Wavering statement and particularly responded to the idea behind, and your turn of phrase about, “relics of nature.” You seem to have pushed into new and critical territory while maintaining your longstanding interests in memory and color.
Alice Hargrave: I’m thinking about parallels between relics of nature, relics of memory, and relics of photography. The book is primarily made up of photographs I’m making today, but it also contains vernacular photography from different decades: Home (movies), stills extracted from 8mm and Super 8 films made in the the 1950s and ’60s; and snapshots that I took in Africa in the 1980s. I found that the African images felt relevant today and resonated due to current environmental issues. Thus the book is a conflation of times, mediums, ideas, and colors.
KP: You feel a deep connection to photography’s color history, especially Kodachrome colors.
AH: Right. Kodachrome, with its warm and highly saturated color, is synonymous with the Great American Road Trip or travel photography. Many photographic processes have their own time, and fade out with their own distinctive patina. Each decade can have its own color cast: the aqua decade or raw sienna decade. I think of these like paint colors. I love the way that certain substrates from the 1970s, like Polaroids, fade to that ochre yellow or green. The color shifts, sublime decay, and image degradation that occur parallel how memory is also filtered and changed over time: fugitive image, fugitive memory. I also often wonder, “What is the color of memory? Do colors create memory or does memory create color? What do we remember, how do we remember it, and how do photographic substrates literally ‘color’ our memories?” We often need photographs to trigger our memories, but do we remember the photograph more, or do we remember the actual event? I certainly have memories that I would not have if it were not for the photograph.
KP: I touched on that a little bit when writing about your work in the catalogue for my exhibition The House of the Seven Gables. As you re-address a photograph or footage, you not only change its materiality but you may also slightly shift your memories, possibly even associating new ones with the original imagery.
AH: By using photographs as source material, I can repurpose old imagery into new work. When I weave together different times and places by revisiting pictures after the fact, it is a way for me to extract details, extend time, redefine meanings, and re-experience moments in a new and slower way.
KP: Because they are so richly layered in their references to time and memory, the writers I have typically thought of when looking at your photographs are Barthes, Sebald, and Proust. Do any of the photographs offer your own Proustian “madeleine” moment?
AH: Each one of them does in its own way. When I pick up my camera and delve into the landscape or other subjects, it’s like taking a bite of that madeleine. The scents of cypress and algae from the sea trigger certain materializations. Taking something from inside oneself and putting it out into the world is what happens when offering up images.
KP: What is it specifically about photography that makes it your primary medium?
AH: It’s not only my medium; in many ways it’s the subject of the work as well. It’s about how photographs function in our lives. I love the element of chance inherent to photography, as well as its capacity for experimentation. Film was always a surprise; prints were a surprise too, as they appeared before my eyes out of the trays of chemicals. I used to spend hours and hours in the darkroom. I loved experimenting endlessly with all the potential variables, loved the sound of the running water and the red light. I worked with tonal baths—selenium toner, gold toner (which actually turned the images this silvery blue)—and then I would cut that print into another bath to stop that process and then slide it into another bath to split tone and add another tone. Today, I’m playing with the same elements of experimentation. All the post-processing I do now results in outcomes I was also able to achieve in the darkroom. That is why it is so important for me to make my own prints; I still want to maintain control and be in touch with the tactile aspects of the process. With the large scale and velvety surface of the paper, I want you to be completely enveloped by an environment.
KP: You have recently made some videos. How have you been thinking about the roles of stillness and motion when choosing to make a video instead of a photograph?
AH: I like how video takes me back to a pace that is in synch with the body, such as the hiking in my Yellowstone on Foot video. The slowness within movement attracts me to video, as well as the silence. I have yet to feel a need for sound.
KP: For Home (movies), you immersed yourself in a variety of technical processes, re-photographing and transfers.
AH: When I was working with 8mm film or Super 8 film, I found that the colors of the footage reminded me of Autochromes. Some colors were faded and others were intensified. I am very interested, particularly with the Home (movies) images, in the natural degradation of photographic substrates. The loss of resolution from the transfer of one medium to another creates an abstraction of the image as well. They go through losses that parallel family life, even using the same familial word: generations. Loss of generations.
KP: An introduction to photography is rooted in a familial experience for so many of us. What initially drew you to photography? What is the earliest photograph you remember making?
AH: I practiced art-making throughout my teenage years but did not find photography until midway through my undergraduate years, when I was studying studio art, architecture, and cinema. The camera’s ability to record the world around me, to harvest and savor moments in time, is what first attracted me to photography. Also, its way of forcing one to slow down and really look, which is what I still do today. I remember using photography first as a tool to see what was going on in architectural form. It’s magical how light can transform, can carve three-dimensional forms into something entirely different. That transformation and recording of light is what I play with when photographing installations such as Visages Oubliés #1 and #2 in the studio.
One of my first projects was about the architecture of Antonio Gaudí. The photographs explored the relationship between architecture, the body, the organic shapes inherent in Gaudí’s forms, and memory—the memory of the architecture. That became a subject and the title of my first substantial one-person exhibition, The Architecture of Memory, at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1991. It is a phrase that you could use to describe my work today, 25 years later!
As for the earliest photos, I think they were made while traveling with my grandmother, who loved going to exotic faraway places. She would come and swoop me away for months at a time. She gave me the “travel bug.” Some of the photos in Paradise Wavering are from an album of photos I made with her in Africa in 1982. The images have faded and become discolored in ways that both formally and conceptually appeal to me. The photographs, memories, and subjects of the images are fleeting, and fragile.
KP: I love that idea of your grandmother “swooping” you away for adventures! How special to have had that time with her. Thinking of that relationship reminds me of the first photograph of yours that I encountered—the empty table and chairs in a twilight yard—in an exhibition that Alison Hatcher curated at the McLean County Arts Center several years ago. It’s a powerful image because it quietly and poignantly addresses absence and the fleeting nature of time, but importantly, it conjures a sense of longing without veering into the sentimental.
AH: Yes, that was Untitled (family pictures); table. It was made at dusk in Normandy, France. The image is like an empty stage set that can be interchangeable, generation upon generation, with a rotating cast of actors. Many vernacular photographs image the clichéd family moments that we, myself included, make again and again. The Untitled (family pictures) and Home (movies) photographs are also linked to an elusive American Dream of what family life should be or look like. Family albums reveal more about how we would like to represent our personal histories rather than revealing an overarching truth of what a family’s past was really like. There is no inherent “truth” in photography; it is constructed simply by choosing where to aim the camera and editing out the periphery. The periphery is what interests me.
KP: And “the periphery” could refer to so many ideas, beyond simply the framing and “truth-telling” in a particular situation (about which there is copious writing). It also connotes social, political, or economic points of view that are outside the mainstream. An interest in the periphery often seems to yield a documentary approach, but you’re reworking archives and creating new images with varying levels of abstraction.
AH: I am interested in the experiences that surround the commotion of daily family life, more so than depicting the actual players. I search for an implicit mood that I express through what I have available to me, whether that means photographing the sky above a Little League game, the clouds from my rooftop, or residual elements of an artistic studio practice. I use vintage vernacular images, footage from my own (or others’) archives, elements that are part of the daily domestic life of raising two boys, or those fleeting moments when, all of a sudden, I look up and the light has created a moving drawing upon the wall. These distillations from particular experiences get pared down and processed in the studio, leading to images that either border on abstraction or enter fully into the language of abstraction.
KP: You mentioned photographing the clouds and sky. Your Blue Skies photographs are obviously not clear, blue skyscapes. In some, the clouds are really rolling; they’re so oceanic.
AH: The Blue Skies are about looking at the sky as a form of release, or a place of relaxation when surrounded by the fast pace and stresses of everyday life. But also, when you see these impending storms with otherworldly 21st-century cloud patterns, they look unlike anything I remember ever seeing. The other day the sky was so green and the pattern of the clouds so foreign!
KP: They sometimes seem so unnatural, like they were created in Hollywood.
AH: Yes, and they make you wonder what is going into the atmosphere that might be making these strange forms. As I was reflecting on the wilderness and animals in my photographs from Yellowstone, it made me question, “What is the future landscape going to look like when we have all these chemicals in the air and water?” Every day I sit down to work and the New York Times comes up on my browser and I read about some new environmental crisis, like just the other day, that picture of the Animas River in Colorado that turned an incredible bright orange from mining waste!
KP: And now, for the first time in recorded history, there are three simultaneous Category 4 hurricanes in the Pacific Ocean.
AH: These are the kinds of things that bring the environmental angst to my work. It’s looking at our world and thinking about the larger consequences of what we’re doing. I don’t want it to be heavily didactic environmental work, but, at the same time, I want it to have an undertone that alludes to that. Another example was a picture I saw of the Zayandeh River that dried up under the Bridge of 33 Arches in Iran. There were beached swan boats along its bank. The picture has just stayed with me, haunts me. The accompanying video also spoke to the huge percentage of Iran that is going to be uninhabitable in the near future if nothing changes. And then you think of the massive numbers of species that will be extinct within our lifetimes!
KP: Have you read about the passenger pigeons? The accounts of these massive sky-darkening flocks numbering in the millions, or possibly even the billions, are just astounding. Yet 2014 marked the 100-year anniversary of the passing of the last bird.
AH: The depictions of birds in the work are from a prairie reserve on the north side of Chicago. In lieu of photographing birds or animals (due to their scarcity), I started photographing the interpretive trail signage. The wear and tear of these signs paralleled the habitat’s destruction. You can see the encroachment of the city both on the horizon and in the drawings on the signs.
KP: I also read that the USDA’s plant hardiness zones have shifted northward, and are expected to continue to do so. What does a change of that magnitude do both to remaining natural habitats and to crop production?
AH: Right. Many plants that I have been growing for years have not thrived because of the extremely cold last two winters.
KP: In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire...
AH: I love that book.
KP: In the apple section, he talks about how many species of apples there were before humans selected them down to just a handful that taste particularly good and are easy to cultivate. Because there is now so little diversity, the apple’s natural defenses are diminished, and a fungus or insect could potentially wipe them all out.
AH: There’s always a flip side, though. I was just doing a project with a friend who’s an environmentalist and writer, Jill Riddell. She has learned that an extraordinary percentage of species have yet to be identified, so she’s been trying to discover a new species herself, which she has done. It’s a new species of chanterelle. I went to a forest preserve with her to photograph what I call “Jill’s chanterelle.” The process visually reminded me of Alice in the woods, finding the Cheshire Cat sitting atop the mushroom and taking a bite.
KP: I do think there are moments of incredible hope. In Peru, a large billboard is being used to collect and filter humidity and then people can bring their own jugs and fill them with fresh water.
AH: That’s genius; I love that! And you know, mangroves are an instrumental plant for cleaning water but so many of the mangroves around the world have disappeared. The ones I photographed were in the Sian Kaʼan Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.
KP: Your grandmother’s travel bug has served you well in developing this body of faltering “paradises.”
AH: Yes, it certainly has. However, the exact locations are not included in the titles; rather, they refer more to the atmosphere of what’s going on. As for particular places, I was contemplating how to photograph Yosemite and Niagara Falls, these icons of the American Road Trip. One solution was the video I mentioned before, Yellowstone on Foot. I made it in my pocket while hiking and experiencing that landscape; it’s a serendipitous abstraction. It shows the rhythm of my hike and the light shifting through the fabric. It’s pinkish-red like the coat I was wearing, so it almost looks like an in-vitro image, with movements reminiscent of a beating heart.
KP: It’s quite intimate. The camera was in a tiny space against your body, which is not how we normally think of a camera recording something except for medical purposes.
AH: And it’s internalized that way.
KP: You sent me an image of the “light event” on one of your husband’s paintings some years ago. I loved that you were thinking of the photograph as a kind of collaboration with him and wondered if it would lead to other similar images. I appreciate now seeing your photos of his stencils.
AH: That was the only one with a light event on one of his paintings, because that just hasn’t happened again, at least not that I’ve seen. But since I am working with his stencils, and various things that I find stowed away in the studio, it is like a way of collaborating. Kendra, you know my husband, Jean-Brice Wallon, sadly passed away almost 10 years ago now. We shared a studio for many years, and I still work within the residuals of his artistic practice. One day I just came upon a folder with stencils from my husband’s paintings. I found these stencils layered on top of each other. I turned them over like pages of a book and each “page” revealed a new configuration of shape, color, and line, so I started photographing them. The oval shapes are cut from brown craft paper and are reminiscent of the human head. They are titled Visages Oubliés, or Forgotten Faces, after the original titles of the paintings.
I think a lot about this economy of source materials, and the act of repurposing. By reworking these archives I can breathe new life into them, translate them into another form, and give them new meaning. It’s also another way to work with family archives, but rather than photographic archives (like my mother’s 8mm films or scrapbook images), they are a painter’s archive, and rather than a vernacular archive, it’s an artist’s archive.
KP: Did you immediately start photographing the stencils once you discovered them?
AH: I did, and I recently made another “light event” photo. All of a sudden, the light just beamed from one end of the studio to the other. It was kind of a spotlight on the door and was so dramatic. I really love those moments when the light paints a picture on the wall.
KP: It feels so mysterious and wondrous; you’re able to make sunlight shining on a door into an image that vibrates with possibilities. It allows the domestic space to be both a part of your everyday surroundings but also a little bit otherworldly.
AH: That domestic experience is certainly there. I consider myself a feminist who raises kids, makes art, teaches, and tries to do everything I can juggle. So I especially need these moments of tranquility to smell the roses and the coffee.
KP: When I see those moments in my own home, when the wind and the light are working together in this one moment to make a dance on the wall just for me to see, it reinforces that I’m part of something larger.
AH: Morning Light is my silent video that shows beams of light projected onto my curtains, stenciled by leaves, and animated by the fluctuating wind. I think of it as a hearth or fireplace, the kind of thing that glues your eyes and makes you stop to look, like a moth to a flame. I need to find ways to do that kind of slow looking and slow feeling.
KP: It’s so necessary. One of the artists I’m working with right now, Carrie Schneider...
AH: She’s fantastic; I love her work!
KP: I’m editing a conversation between the two of us right now for a book, and we’re also talking about slowness and space for contemplation, particularly in terms of her Reading Women project. Who were the artists and writers that most inspired you when you began making photographs? Are they the same ones who continue to inspire you?
AH: Wow, that is a huge question as there are so many! Agnes Martin for translating experience and emotion into paintings using color and abstraction. Early influences were Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse for their autobiographical, guttural, and organic expressions. And Vija Celmins for reinterpreting the world around her and working with the everyday. For photographers, I have to say Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Emmet Gowin. As I did my graduate work at UIC in Chicago, I have certainly been influenced by painters like Judy Ledgerwood for her expressive, immersive use of bold color and gesture, and Julia Fish, whose abstractions, resulting from intensive observations of her own surroundings (home, studio, garden), I adore. She was one of my graduate advisors and a mentor. Speaking of mentors, Barbara Crane! And then there is film: Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Chris Marker—La Jetée!
As for writers, Hélène Cixous, Rebecca Solnit (see the quotes in this book) and poetry have been quite influential over the years, especially Pablo Neruda and his odes to elemental substances. My Underwater Prairie photographs are prairie plants steeped in water. The water has changed color over time due to the soaking plant. These are odes too: Ode to Fuchsia and Ode to Violet. My earliest work was also abstract and rooted in the organic world. A quote by George Sand that was in my very first artist statement is still relevant for me today: “The consciousness of self as animal, vegetable, and mineral, and the delight we feel in plunging down into that consciousness, is by no means degrading. It is good to know the fundamental life at our roots.”
—Kendra Paitz is senior curator at University Galleries of Illinois State University. This conversation was compiled from Paitz’s recorded studio visits with the artist and their email correspondence from July through September 2015.
Accompanying text from the one person exhibition Untitled (expeditions) at The Experimental Sound Studio
born from delirious day
into windless twilight
there is no justice
more rose than castaway
we listen for a breeze
a first vision
again without words
no carefree analysis of desire
no specific destination
just smoldering remembrance
and the darkest teal blue
Sandra Binion 2014
AN INTERIOR EXPOSED
Accompanying text from the one person exhibition Untitled (family) at The Experimental Sound Studio
a blue kiss pursed to alight on a waiting cheek
the residue of fingerprints
preserved essences of pattern, flower
an absence becoming presence
restored by the act of looking
empty table and chairs
an overturned bicycle left by the road
a rose patch
a trimmed hedge
what we are not seeing is there
lingering like dust in the air
a distant laugh
with open gates to let us out or in
these photographs are waiting for
the inhabitants to return to place and now
both festive and haunted
the quiet benevolence of damaged textures
embraces the natural beauty of then
we are not trespassers
but invited guests
Sandra Binion 2010
SPACE / SIGHT / SELF
The Smart Museum of Art Exhibition Catalogue Essay Anna Pomykala
The mixture of fascination and anxiety that illness elicits, the sense of disconnection from our bodies coupled with the yearning to see and control them, has been intensified by the introduction of technologies that are as incomprehensible as they are intrusive. Modern medical imaging technology treats the human body as an impersonal object, a “body” of digital data. Penetrating and permeating its surface and substance, detecting its most invisible and imperceptible energies, recording its most microscopic growths and permutations, it exposes us unrecognizably to ourselves. In the work of Alice Hargrave we discover our own recently digitized bodies, abstracted and then re-beautified as though in a fairy-tale mirror.
Hargrave redirects computer technology onto the body of these medical images, applying traditional photographic practices (such as exposing light-sensitive emulsions directly to objects and making multiple prints of the same image) to recent medical imaging technologies such as x-rays, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, mammograms and Postronic Emission Tomography scans. Thus, she transforms diagnostic facts into visual abstractions - gorgeously wrought formal relationships of hue, shape, and pattern. Exploring the metaphoric relationships between malignancy and beauty, power and vulnerability, growth and decay, her images of the body appear at once seductively foreign and uncannily familiar.
Hargrave’s images play with the traditionally gendered notions of vision and also question the criteria we use to differentiate ourselves from other animal, plant, and mineral forms. The likenesses that emerge from her imaging process seem far removed from actual flesh, blood, and bones. Mesmerized by the baffling shapes and symmetries that the technological vision produces, social personal, and even species-centered presumptions fall away before the stunningly lovely presence of pure biological “stuff.”
In her recent work, Hargrave shifts her attention away from malignancy towards benign reproductivity. Exploring the parallel between the body’s procreative capabilities and the technological proliferation of images, she asks where the difference between biological and mechanical reproduction really lies. How do we instill the aura of the original into its created image? Hargrave’s Feline Fertility series and her ultrasound fetal heartbeat graphs delve into the very image — digitally enlarged and color-enhanced — of the origins of life itself.