At the question period after the Kodak Lecture Series in a nearly full room L-72 in Jorgenson Hall last Friday, an audience member put up her hand and asked: “I’ve been a fan for a while now, and I noticed your recent work is more cynical. Why?”
At their podium at the front of the lecture theatre, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison nodded their heads and sighed.
“Yes, we’re heard that before,” Shana said. “We started the last series in February,” she explained, “so we had just enough time to digest what was going on.”
The crowd sighed in return. It’s all the audience needs to hear. The increased bleakness in the duo’s recent photographs is understandable.
The message, she explains, concerns the sorry state of our environmental affairs and the Kyoto-thwarting attitude of our society.
“The Earth is all we have,” she asserted. “We’ve been polite long enough, and now we’re going to get down to business.”
At the beginning of the evening they displayed their early work on the big screen of the lecture theatre. The old photos resemble something out of an old children’s book, with visual references to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and childish optimism.
In another, a black-suited man rockets into space, puffs of cottony white smoke trailing behind his junk-scrap space vehicle. In another, the same man (actually Robert, who is the star of most of their photographs) balances on stilts while patching up a hole in the sky, hammering nails into wood beams to cover it.
After showing slides from the past ten years of working together, Robert and Shana treated the packed audience to a debut unveiling of their new series. The eight new images, like their previous photographs, are lushly detailed black and whites which feature black-suited characters interacting with sparse landscapes. They have the duo’s trademark ancient, faraway quality, as if the photos were 100-year-old images of a post-apocalyptic world.
These photos paint a much darker picture of the environment. In the photo Dreamfall a man falls from the sky rather than flying up into it. In Low Tide the black-suited man is chained to an anonymous shoreline, and in Black Forest a person is trapped in a small glowing bubble in a dark forest.
Junkyard-fashioned inventions have been replaced by rising black smoke, swarming bees and dirt. One might think the previously optimistic artists had turned cynical, but they assured the attentive crowd at the lecture that this was not the case.
“It’s not that we’ve given up hope,” said Shana. “We just want to say our message with more urgency.”
Their photographs, some of which take months of preparation and weeks of touch-ups afterwards, are pleas to humanity to start giving a damn before it’s too late.
“Why aren’t we concerned and why aren’t we connecting anymore?” asked Shana, repeating the message the artists want their pictures to convey. The Exchange, a photo from 1999, puts the connection in literal terms, portraying Robert seated in a circle of shrubs. Cords run from his forearms to each of the small trees, illustrating what appears to be a blood transfusion between Robert and the plants.
When asked if they had considered affiliating themselves with environmental defenders like Greenpeace, Shana explained that they don’t want to just preach to the converted. ”What’s the point in that?”
With their self-described ‘yin-yang’ relationship they illustrate their message for the masses in the simple and visual language of children’s books, fantastic worlds and early silent films.
The process of conceiving each photograph is never rushed. The two spend months developing each idea before they even pick up a camera. Once an idea strikes them, they refer to science mythology, religion and literature to expand the meaning behind the potential image. Once the idea is complete, they sketch the image and begin figuring out how to manifest it as a photo.
Using found objects and bits they pull out of junkyards, they construct their props and sets at home in their backyard, fashioning delightful contraptions that never really work, except in the imagination of the viewer. They are not highly skilled engineers, and use duct tape and other amateur materials to assemble the backdrop.
“Everything you learned in Kindergarten, that’s what we do,” Shana said.
They scout unusual locations for their photos — exploring landfills, battlefields, and other destroyed areas, until they find the perfect place to shoot. They use natural light, except in rare instances in which a light bulb is a prop.
In the darkroom, they construct the final photo from pieces of various photos. Then begins the laborious process of painting the images in order to get them exactly how they want them. Many layers of paint later, the image is mounted on a wood panel, finally complete.
One photo shows a field of cardboard boxes, with a man curled up and asleep in each box. Near the front of the picture one man has woken up, and is rising out of his box to see the sky for the first time. It’s a perfect illustration of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s concerns.
“If we don’t wake up on a massive scale,” Shana says, “the party’s over.”