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.”

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