Sunday, July 10, 2011

Artist Lecture at the City Gallery: Melinda Mead!

Please pardon the shitty photography (my photos of the work, not Melinda Mead's)

"We all look for truth in photos, right?" explains Melinda Mead to a crowd of 50 or so people in City Gallery looking at a wall of her photos. There are around 6 on one wall, and 6 more around the corner. I'd guess they're between 11 x 14" and 14 x 17", matte digital prints mounted on some thick board with no frame or border, all in lush color and rich contrast. "As a record of who did what, how it was, who really has friends on Facebook, if Osama Bin Laden is really dead." [I am quoting the best I can from memory for this entire post] "So are they truthful? NO! These look like photos of people in their rooms having a solitary, somber moment. But I'm RIGHT THERE with my camera. We were making jokes and small talk. And I had to edit hundreds of images to get these."

I fell victim to editing before I even saw the show. I knew nothing about Mead or her work, only the snippet of one of her photos on display from City Gallery's advertisement: a young woman lit ethereally brushing her hair and looking in the mirror. "Oh great," I thought. "Another young, pretty woman artist who makes images of young pretty women doing pretty things." Sure there are artists who do this really well-- I've blogged about them before-- but it's usually a lazy trend that I'm just tired of. Fortunately when I got to the gallery I discovered I was flat wrong.

The photos are of Mead's friends, all in their 20's or 30's, some of them recognizable Charleston artists, alone in an interior space. The images are all crisp but it's obvious from the dim lighting that the exposures were up to several seconds long. That, combined with the thoughtful or mundane expressions and depictions of chores or processes being competed, imbues the images with a strong sense of elapsing time. The figures are small, framed by interiors that function as a formal extension of their thoughts while at the same time as a pedestal that objectifies them to the viewer. In one group of 6 the interiors are curved and organic, as in a van, or large and mostly empty. On the other wall the interiors are all mashups of rectangular door-frames, bookshelves, magazines and and furniture that Mead shot parallel or perpendicular to the edge of the photo so that they are flattened and collage-like with a person in the middle. I completely forgot I was looking literally through Mead's camera and that she was present in the shoot, just as I wasn't aware of myself, the viewer, looking at the scenes.

Mead explained that she got into photography like most people: to document friends and family so you can look back later and have a record of what things and people were like. But the reality, she said, of photography is that you want what's in the photo, what's already happened, but it isn't real. Taking photos and looking at them are inherently an exercise in nostalgia and loss. Mead says she didn't realize it while shooting this series but she now understands that she was reacting to her mother's recent death. Many of the images deal with grief in that they're solitary and solemn, dim with a figure turned away from the light source. But she also seems to have utilized the medium of photography perfectly in order to express elements of grief: that which a photographer falsely creates to prevent its passing and then grasps after it has passed.

I also thought it was interesting that, when presented with the challenge of working outside the conventional bounds of a medium that is normally trusted for truth, reality and accuracy, Mead chose to make images that were even more real. The dim lighting, composition and form all enhance the "solitary moments" subject-matter so that the viewer sees the content but also poetically and instinctively feels the mood. Although Mead posed some of the shots and issued instructions she ended up with overly accurate images. While many photographers when faced with the "photography = reality" problem would tweak subject-matter to depict a physically impossible situation or turn to some sort of surrealism, I think hyper-reality is a daring and rigorous solution.

The Q&A afterward was cool because the audience was engaged and thoughtful and Mead did a great job both communicating basic photography concepts and getting to the interesting stuff. Everyone wanted to know: what was it really like? How did you talk to the subjects? How did they feel? What are your own private moments like? Would it have been different if they weren't your friends? Which were most difficult? Why these people? Her description of what it was like to involve her friends in a formal project was especially interesting to me as a portrait artist who has a really hard time asking people to pose.

Her work will be up at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park (i.e. Pineapple Fountain park) as part of the Under the Radar show till July 31, along with work by D.H. Cooper, Rebecca West Fraser, Nina Garner, Conrad Guevara, Greg Hart, Alan W. Jackson and Lauren Frances Moore. So go see it! Plus hopefully I'll be writing about the next two artist lectures, which are this Saturday, July 16 and the next Saturday, July 23 at 5 pm. Next: Artist Lecture Part 2: Conrad Guevara!

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