in SWARM'S way
hat if you were hiking and you came around a rocky corner and there before you hovered a mass of fuchsia plastic cups? What if you were walking in the woods and suddenly you saw a loopy, colorful mass of garden hose hanging in the air, like some bizarre entity, right in front of you? Then you wake up and remember you’re at Photo-eye Gallery, immersed in the photographs of Thomas Jackson, who shares the exhibition space with Angela Bacon-Kidwell starting on Friday, May 29.
Marshmallows, various-colored Post-it notes, plastic plates, crumpled paper, and turned-on glow sticks are some of the manufactured objects Jackson uses in his photos of unlikely swarms. The first image in the series he calls Emergent Behavior is Broken Pallet (Brooklyn, New York, 2011). It was made on location but shot in increments. “I went to this place in Red Hook in Brooklyn and picked up shards of a broken pallet and took it back to the studio,” said the photographer, who grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in San Francisco. “I made a sculpture with the shards; then I returned at about four in the morning and set it up on a stand and took pictures, moving it each time; then I scanned in all the film and assembled the image digitally.”
By contrast, the possibly scary forest photo Garden Hose no. 1 (Accord, New York, 2013) was made entirely in-camera: He set up the scene by hanging the hoses on trees using a ladder, took the picture, and did no retouching or Photoshop manipulation. Asked if he changed his philosophical stance about photography with this move to a more straightforward process, he said, “You know, it was just an offhand comment from a friend/mentor. He said, ‘It would be cool if you didn’t do anything digital.’ That sort of stuck with me, and each time I progressively got closer to doing that. I started doing things in-camera [shooting film using a 4 x 5 camera] as a challenge to myself. I also thought it was more interesting, more stimulating, and I felt like applying a constraint like that made me more creative, because in Photoshop you can do anything.”
In some of the photographs, the viewer might get the idea that Jackson is commenting on the litter problem. “Only indirectly, just because they’re sort of making fun of the junk that we surround ourselves with. By placing these things in these beautiful landscapes, you have a juxtaposition that kind of outlines their vulgarity, in a way, yet makes them beautiful at the same time and makes you think that they’re something else.” The oldest print in the Photoeye show is Cheese Balls (Napanoch, New York, 2012). It shows an elevated mass of smallish yellow globules encircling a big tree trunk. “An interesting thing is that it’s hard to imagine a foodstuff more unnatural with that color and the gross powdery stuff that gets all over your fingers, but when you put them in the forest, they remind me of things you actually see in the forest, like certain kinds of mosses and lichens.”
The objects in the Emergent Behavior photos strongly refer to swarms. “They represent something about nature that is very different from us, a form of organization that’s very contrary to how human beings tend to see the world,” he said. “We tend to want to organize things in neat rows, and swarms represent things that make us feel a little uneasy, but we’re fascinated by them simultaneously — like seeing the bats coming out of Carlsbad Caverns. So there’s a juxtapositional playfulness to take a plastic cup and animate it, to take a group of them and animate them. I want to take something that’s very familiar and that has its own context, like Post-it notes, and put them in a completely different place doing something you’d never expect them to be doing. There’s a moment of confusion I’m trying to elicit on the part of the viewer.”
Some of the swarms populating Bacon-Kidwell’s photographs have an entirely different meaning. Swarms of birds often appear in her Home by Nightfall series; these were made in tribute to her father, who died of cancer following a period of suffering from intense tinnitus. Smears of moisture and light partially obscure some of her scenes; it turns out they were shot through wet windshields. “These were taken on drives,” said the longtime resident of Wichita Falls, Texas. “I’ve always been a big driver, to clear my head in the evening. And
my dad was a big driver, and he and I would talk a lot on the phone during the time he was ill. I would drive fast and make dust and jump out and take pictures. It was a crazy time.”
The photos of country roads with swarming birds in the sky were all taken within an eight-mile radius, taking the same path over and over. She felt like she was practicing the adage that if you do a hundred paintings, you will learn to paint. “And the birds are amazing out there — how they move and form shapes. I was creating what was going on, the craziness in our lives. My father’s tinnitus was very severe, and it drove him insane. When the birds swarm, they make a noise, and it resonated with me what it must have been like for him.”
Like Jackson, her photographic performances are varied and creative. In the photograph Wishing to Fly, from her Traveling Dream series, we see a woman at the beach, but the beach is a muddy, desolate plain and the woman carries a lone bird in a cage. She made the image at Lake Wichita with an exposure that was more than 12 hours. “That was taken with a film camera; then I scanned it and manipulated it in Photoshop. There are several images layered. That’s me in the photograph, performing for the camera.” Quite different is Tattoo, in which we view a huge leaf held by her young son, Bleu, who had been drawing on his hands. It was a single shot made outside a restaurant. “But even if it’s a single shot, I’m going to go in and mess with it,” Bacon-Kidwell said. “I need my hands on it, if that makes any sense.” It does when we know that she majored in painting.
The artist admits that her work is full of symbolism and that creating these photographs is psychologically cathartic. “I think I make work to stay one step ahead of whatever’s going on. It’s the way I navigate my life. In Traveling Dream I went back and was dealing with things from when I was young. And my son was in the photographs a lot. It was very organic, the way they came about. Our daily life was going out and exploring and coming up with ideas.” One of her more delightful images is Flight. It seems to be all about speed, a boy seemingly catapulting himself toward us as he tries to outrace a train. In fact, Bleu had climbed onto the car and she took the picture with him sprawled on the windshield.
Eyes, from her Traces of Existence series, shows a child’s face embedded in a field of textures; he looks as if he’s made of stone. The piece is wild with layers of drawing, painting, and photographs. “For that series, I had been to China and I printed out hundreds of images from there and from the home of my grandparents, who I had recently lost. I cut-and-paste-collaged the photos and painted on top and rephotographed them, sometimes submerged in water, sometimes burning, sometimes frozen in ice; then I’d bring them into Photoshop and tweak them.” Another intense process. “Yes,” Bacon-Kidwell admitted. “I’d like to just start painting flowers and not be so intense, but I don’t think I’m going to make it.”