Since ancient times, the art of natura morte, or “still life,” has mused on death, transformation, and life. Picturing objects of comfort and despair, most typically lush fruits and flowers in various stages of fertility and decay, often alongside a skull of some sort, the still life illuminates a fundamental paradox: Death infers the very vitality that preceded it. Perhaps this enduring truth explains why the still life is experiencing renewed enthusiasm after decades of a cultural appetite for the immediacy of documentary photography.
Quietly bucking the trends and pursuing her own direction for more than 40 years, Boston-based photographer Olivia Parker has explored, expanded, and even recast the still-life genre. The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, is celebrating her inventive career in a dynamic and expansive retrospective exhibition, Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker, on view through November 11, 2019
The show follows Parker’s inquisitive and serendipitous journey, revealing how her photographs of selected objects have been inspired by both her profound and playful ideological questioning of science, history, art, and photographic technique. “The objects I like, whether living or dead, are signs of life,” Parker says, in the book that complements the exhibition.
“Memento mori on a tombstone says ‘remember you will die,’ but it also reminds me that someone once lived. A row of pea pods, alike in structure but alive in their variation, fascinates me. A row of plastic flowers, identical in structure but dead in their sameness, would hold little appeal—unless chewed by my dog, varied, altered by living energy. . . . Objects that are or have been living things—those at the edges of change—interest me.”
Over time, Parker’s philosophical inclination and inexhaustible experimentation have produced more and more layered imagery, deepening into her most current and moving project, Vanishing in Plain Sight, in which she channels the narrowing perceptions of her husband as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease.
But first, it is illuminating to appreciate some of the seminal forces that have shaped Parker’s remarkable artistic evolution. Despite inevitable references to 17th-century Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish painting, Parker’s still lifes are defiantly photographic. For starters, her earliest pictures from the 1970s are gelatin silver, black-and-white prints instead of the sumptuous colors characteristic of still-life paintings. Furthermore, Parker developed her prints with a capricious split-toning darkroom technique that imbues them with a variety of subtle and unifying rust and blue hues—foreshadowing her proclivity for experimentation.
At the invitation of Cambridge-based Polaroid Corporation, Parker began experimenting with instant color processing in the late 1970s, suddenly opening a new world of possibilities to her: “I could always say: what will happen if? Knowing the result quickly encourages another question. The process becomes similar to playing a game that is dependent on both chance and thought.”
Her extensive collection of objects now gave rise to colorful juxtapositions—intuitive and sometimes mystifying combinations that invited viewers to draw on remembered stories or invent new ones. “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,” Parker elucidates. “The materials I use only become interesting in context; a butterfly and a tin can must transform each other.”
Transformation best describes what Parker’s photographs accomplished as she continued to mine questions of illusion versus reality, constantly experimenting with equipment, format, and technique. A skiing accident that immobilized her for a year in 1995 was the impetus for Parker to transition from film to digital photography. The purchase of a macro lens to photograph all manner of insects liberated from the walls of her older home during a 2002 renovation spawned extremely close-up images with highly selective focus. Parker continued to experiment with the dynamic spatial relationships created by depth of field and further accentuated its effects with light projected through colored tissue paper and glass vessels. Then Parker imaginatively combined these disparate elements and introduced the radical element of motion into her most current still-life project, Still and Not So Still Life.
All of Parker’s conscious and subconscious ingenuity is brought to bear in her most transcendent and unanticipated project, the ongoing Vanishing in Plain Sight, which culminates the PEM exhibition. When her husband of nearly 50 years, John, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, Parker instinctively processed the life-altering development by making pictures. At first, she photographed the things John had begun to accumulate obsessively, such as office supplies he’d forgotten he bought. As John’s degradation progressed, Parker transitioned from objective inventories to the much more intimate and emotional imagining of the ways John perceived the world as it constricted and eventually escaped him.
Parker’s potent narrative includes photographs of the small scraps and stacks of scribbled notes that John used early on to help him recall things, such as the names of close friends and the cities the couple visited on their honeymoon. Flooded with undulating and prismatic light, the notes are awash in wonky, disorienting waves and shadows like memories escaping reach. Differing opacities create depth of field, as if to hint at the dimensionality of the past. John’s sharply penned reminders are desperate sonnets to his then swirling, evasive history.
Integrating her early use of grids and later explorations in color and motion, Parker’s imagery evolves into triptychs and sequenced grids that often originate with recognizable objects, only to shape-shift into mysterious forms. With blurred objects suggesting the devolving mind’s erratic and unreliable impressions, Parker’s dark sequence of John’s favorite small Flemish painting on copper by Frans Francken II offers an eerie expression of progressive loss.
As John’s disease advances, Parker follows with more ethereal and abstract photographs pondering his dark and fiery hallucinatory states. Her expressive use of fractured light suggests the brain’s neural disconnections while smoky forms and sinewy threads lend the impression of a dwindling body and soul, as in the softly minimalist Changes. Although shot primarily in color, Parker’s prevalent use of black, white, and red effectively introduces graphic contrast to an uncertain, intangible subject. Blood-red beacons of life, the black and inaccessible stores of his knowledge (with peripheral visual hallucinations represented by ink strokes reminiscent of John’s beloved Asian art), and scattered, electric white nerve impulses create a powerful paradox in the boldly luminous Nattering Things.
Parker’s imaginings of John’s ultimate departure are heartrending, sweet visual poetry. What? Where? contemplates the very end of consciousness with fluid elegance. In visually processing her husband’s demise, Parker’s signature inventiveness is infused with poignancy. Gracefully, generously, she leads us to life’s vanishing point.
Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 11, 2019. For directions, hours, and more information about this exhibit and associated events, go to pem.org.
Elin Spring is founder and editor-in-chief of What Will You Remember?, an online photography magazine featuring views, reviews, and interviews about the most intriguing imagery around Boston and beyond.