Thursday, June 17, 2004
A revolution is taking place in the world of fine art photography, the outcome of which promises to redefine the nature and meaning of the medium.
On one side of the debate are traditionalists for whom photography serves a primarily descriptive function, and who believe that the truest and purest expression of the photographic aesthetic is defined by an interpretative approximation of reality through the camera.
On the other side are those artists who are more conceptually driven, for whom ideas are paramount and who have embraced digital imaging as providing the widest and most expressive range of tools with which to create their art.
Out of this debate comes the work of Stephen Marc, whose fantastical, dreamlike vision of slavery and the African diaspora is a stunning affirmation of how digital imaging is exploding the boundaries and suggesting new and worthwhile forms of photographic expression.
In Walking in the Footsteps, which opens Friday in Carmel, Marc digitally combines pictures of historic Underground Railroad sites, contemporary portraits, scans of antique and old family photographs, and photographs of random and specifically iconic objects symbolic of the black experience into swirling, kaleidoscopic images of cinematic sweep and intensity.
Marc’s densely rendered images, which he characterizes as “metaphoric montages,” are suffused with elements of history, mythology, and personal reminiscence that merge to create multi-layered narratives. Although the influences are not specific, the thematic, structural, and narrative qualities of Marc’s work allude to elements of graffiti and comic book art and muralism in their social and aesthetic concerns.
Walking in the Footsteps represents a small selection of images from a much broader project on the Underground Railroad, the pre-Civil War network of safe houses that guided escaped slaves to freedom in the North, which Marc plans to publish in book form in the near future. Marc, who began work on the project in 2000, says the idea and form for the series coalesced as he began to explore the full potential of digital imaging. During the past four years, he traveled to Underground Railroad sites in 21 states and Canada, and has taken more than 30,000 photographs.
Marc characterizes himself as a collector of images, cataloguing sites, and assembling a vast array of imagery that he later blends and incorporates (using Photoshop) into his final, mural-like images. It is this access to the wide array of tools in digital imaging that has freed Marc’s creative imagination.
“For me, digital is a matter of the ease and fluidity that happens in it, the ability to do several different versions of an image, rework and change an image,” he explains. “I photograph in a way that gives me the greatest number of options to include an object or scene in a future piece. When I do something for montage, it’s more a matter of collecting and cataloguing things and not paying attention to the foreground or background. I look for a clean representation of details from one or more vantage points.”
While knowledge of the specific historic references in Marc’s photographs enhances one’s appreciation for his accomplishment, the artist himself agrees that the work can be appreciated and understood on an aesthetic level without such knowledge or awareness.
“The more informed somebody is, the more things they can identify and read into the connections,” says Marc. “However, I want the pictures to work aesthetically as well. The aesthetics are a portal into the specifics.”
As an artist working with artifacts of history, Marc admits to walking a tightrope between his personal and creative concerns, and his obligation to treat the history of the Underground Railroad as objectively as possible.
“Although the historic element is a driving force behind the work, I am an artist first and don’t make any claims as an historian,” Marc insists. “There is a symbiotic relationship between history and art. There is a point where I’m walking gingerly in terms of what I can visually show and how much that overrides and dramatizes some of the myths. I try to be aware of that, and the montages allow me to deal metaphorically with the issues of slavery and the Underground Railroad and not have to be so specific and factual.”
Whether it is important or necessary to be able to intimately relate to the slave experience to fully appreciate his work, Marc insists that he is trying to interpret African-American history from a much broader and more generally human historic perspective.
“It is my goal to do more than just describe these places,” says Marc. “I want to get people involved and to deal with the experience of being in these places and translate that experience in a visual way. I try to bring those things that are a part of my experience and history to the forefront to give people understanding and access for exploring.
“History is ephemeral, and many of these sites are disappearing quickly. As I started this project I found a real urgency to go through and discover these places and give them form. This is something that reverberates into the present, a history that makes the present clearer, how certain communities are anchored, and why people in certain communities relate to one another. This is really American history, not just black history, and we’ll never know the whole spirit of it.”
Walking in the Footsteps: Passage on the Underground Railroad Project opens Friday at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel. A reception with the artist will be held 6/25 from 6-8pm; artist’s lecture 6/26. 625-5181.