A Summer Afternoon

Photograph entitled “A Summer Afternoon” by Olivia Parker.


That plane shadow could be the DC-3 that flies over our garden twice a day, bringing supplies to Catalina Island. The leaf shadow, Arundo donax.
Looking at this photo, I feel I’m in my garden as much as looking out the window on the garden in front of me.
Interesting how similar photography is to garden-making, both concerned with framing devices, edges, boundaries. Selecting and condensing for emotional response. As Ms. Parker writes, like gardens, “We expect a photograph to be closer than a painting or a drawing to what we think is real.”

What follows is the complete foreword “Anima Motrix” Ms. Parker wrote to her edition of photographs entitled “Weighing The Planets.”

These photographs have been assembled as a book so that they can speak together. I will not attempt to explain their meaning in verbal terms, because my process is visual, but I can suggest what is on my mind.

“I am interested in the way people think about the unknown. For most of human history people have looked to the spirit world to explain what was going on. Animals floated in the night sky, and each object had its own “Anima Motrix,” its own moving spirit. By the seventeenth century clockwork explanations begin to invade the spirit world, opening doors to modern physics. New ideas form, the old are shattered, and sometimes old ideas pop up again among the new like graffiti on a wall. All is uncertainty and change, but optimists and bingo players are on the lookout for moments of perfect knowledge and perfect cards.

“In thinking about the way we understand both contemporary objects and old objects as well as the way people have understood objects at different points in time, I wonder at the vast changes in the human world in an instant of geologic time. In the past, people primarily had to make sense out of the natural world. Increasingly there is a man-made landscape too, some of it beneficial and some of it unforeseen and chaotic. We are learning the rules of the forest, but we know little about the rules of the city dump. Reading objects, archaeologists search for meaning in bones, earth, and stone. Today, some anthropologists try to figure us out by checking our garbage. What if each cereal box, grapefruit rind, and hubcap were perceived to have its own moving spirit?

“Objects rich in human implications are the ones that interest me. I work intuitively, but only part of the time. There is a fluctuation between visual intuition and an editorial process that presses me to throw out what is not working and to go beyond the content level of individual objects. The objects become a language for me. My intention is not to document objects but to see them in a new context, where they take on a presence dependent on the world within each photograph. Often I use old objects, for as the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz said, “I am much more interested in an old piece of burlap than a new one, for the beauty of an object is to me in the quantity of information I can get from it, the stories it has to tell.” If I use new or organic materials they become interesting only in context; a bone and a machine part must transform each other.

“When I am browsing along a gutter or entering a junk shop, and someone asks what I am looking for, I have to say that I don’t know until I see it. What I bring home may or may not end up in a photograph. If it does enter a photograph, it will be in a limited space defined by the edge of the image. This is not, however, a precious keepsake box. The velvet lined case picture is gone, but the glut of photographic images we experience daily cannot erase the power of the edge of the photograph to structure and call attention to what is within. Even if it is rigidly confined at its edges, a photograph can still have areas of brightness or shadow left for exploration.

“Although I work primarily in my own studio, I often think of those who had the courage to go beyond the edge of the map, in body or spirit, especially those who tried to make sense out of what they saw, or thought they saw. A hole in the map, a puzzling phenomenon, and an ambiguous image all invite speculation and invention. Where there are gaps with insufficient information, we tend to fill them in with handy thoughts of our own. I invite those who see my pictures to participate with their own thoughts. This is not to say that whole photographs are ambiguous. I expect that each of us has a circle of meaning for each image we see. We overlap – extensively for some, for others large segments remain private because of what we bring to the image from our own lives. Shadows of figures can move forward threateningly or run away. A dove-pigeon can be a symbol of peace and love, a humorous creature, or a dirty street pest, depending on its context and the experience of the viewer.

“I do not choose objects for sentimental reasons. With the exception of a few rocks, none of them are from childhood collections, and none came from the family attic. I claim no control over other people’s attics, their contents and associations. Although I do not use actual objects from my childhood, I am interested in remembered stories and games. No matter how bizarre, a story or photograph can work if its own world rings true. Fairy tales speak of strange tensions and balances: life, growth, and sex versus death and decay; Beauty and the Beast. Games, those dependent on both chance and thought, creep into my pictures. Cards fall by chance, full of magic and significant numbers, but some card games require rational thought and skill. A child’s game can be a rehearsal for adult activities, a way of understanding or misunderstanding them, as in playing house and playing war. Games can explore and lead off the map. In the game of telephone, a word starts then ends up as another the same way an image starts and changes in multiple generations on a copier. In the world of play, magic and alchemy are still possible. The rabbit disappears, shadows slide off a page. Light burns white. Light burns black. At the edge of the imagination there is a black sun.

“Light and silver transform all that is photographed, and yet we expect a photograph to be closer than a painting or a drawing to what we think is real. My constructions do not exist as permanent pieces; they vanish after I make the photograph. Shadows move as the sun moves; flowers decay; forms alter as the light shifts; objects rendered transparent when they are removed during an exposure become solid again. Objects and texts placed on a photocopier yield images of reduced information that I often use as part of my pictures. Also, the toned silver prints are different from what my eye sees in front of the camera because of the character of the print medium I have chosen. The photograph is a transformation of what I see, caught on an edge in a delicate balance.

“Since Newton’s time we have been weighing the planets mathematically, but Anima Motrix persists. Recently in Hong Kong there was a furor because the new Bank of China building had not been sited in accordance with the desires of benevolent dragons. Some say God is lurking at the outer edge of high-energy physics. It appears that Anima Motrix will last until all is known.” — Olivia Parker, 1987.

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1 Response to A Summer Afternoon

  1. MB Maher says:

    Parker is one of my all-time favorite photographers and Anima Motrix itself is, if not THE best, then the second best essay on process and art making and the insistent desires Plato’s cave. The image above is also one of her most evocative. Never before have a flower, a learjet, and a vulture existed in an image together to rightly. This post made my day.

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