Stephen Chalmers' 'Unmarked' at Light Work

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 04/12/10More articles
Stephen Chalmers, "25 Male Victims, CA" (2009), inkjet print. © Stephen Chalmers, courtesy of Light Work.

I’d mistakenly had Light Work Gallery’s opening reception for Stephen Chalmers’ "Unmarked" on my calendar for the next week. There on another errand, I discovered the crowds, the wine and the cheese, so I thought I’d better take a look since the photographer was there too. Chalmers is a Kentucky native who moved west to Washington State a decade ago and in the winter of 2007 had a Light Work residency. "Unmarked" is what he’s been working on over the past four years, some 250 photographs of “dump sites” used by serial killers up and down the West Coast. There are 16 large color prints on view, and 31 prints (plus a map) in #156 of the gallery’s "Contact Sheet," which serves as the show’s catalogue. Most were made since he was last in Syracuse.

So, though I knew what "Unmarked" was about, coming upon it in person was unexpected. The pictures themselves have that same quality. They are, after all, images made quite exactingly – Chalmers used FOIA requests for court transcripts and police reports, a team of researchers and satellite GPS for precise locations – of the places where human remains were first discarded and then discovered. More immediately, you quickly notice each has an area of extremely sharp focus, contrasting with the rest of the image, which is softer and seems to fall away. This works best in the wall prints and it’s harder to see in the smaller catalogue prints. But the effect is startling, suddenly pulling on your attention toward one spot, echoing if not quite reproducing the shock of discovery.

The 16 images in the gallery portray pastoral country scenes: streams turbulent and placid, deserted roads, thickets and underbrush, high tangled grass, dense old-growth forest, bridges. Several were taken in winter, but most span the other three seasons. Chalmers says he made no attempt to recreate the exact time of day or weather when a body was discovered, nor the particular vantage point of the discoverer.

This isn’t the first Light Work exhibition of a project to photograph places with some traumatic link. In early 2007 William Earle Williams had simultaneous related exhibitions here. Light Work hosted "Unsung Heroes: African American Soldiers in the Civil War," which documented battle sites where some of the 36,000 Union troops of African descent died. Community Folk Art Center hosted "The Underground Railroad Made Visible," photos of many sites in Upstate New York and elsewhere. In late 2008, Light Work showed Argentine photographer Paula Luttringer’s "El Lamento de los Muras/The Wailing of the Walls," photos made inside the deteriorating secret detention centers used by the military during the 1976-83 “dirty war.” Luttringer, a professional gemologist before taking up photo, explicitly based "El Lamento" on the 16th and 17th century European hobby of collecting “dream stones” – stones with bizarre patterns on their surfaces thought caused by their proximity to violent events.

There’s plenty of interest in how photo and trauma are alike – see, for example, "Spectral Evidence" (2005), where Ulrich Baer discusses how both “freeze” the moment, in image or memory, of places where horrific events occurred. But Chalmers – formerly both a therapist and an EMT – is doing something a little different. He cites instead Geoffrey Gorer’s 1955 essay “The Pornography of Death,” which argued that in the 20th century, death had become as taboo as sex in the Victorian 19th. And his handling of focus – despite the fact that these are classic landscape stills – has the effect of a zoom shot in the moment of encounter (no coincidence that he got his MFA in cinema and photo).

Chalmers says he “resists the psychological.” No, he doesn’t “feel a presence” in these spots (though once he heard voices in some trees and ran, lugging his heavy large format camera and tripod through the woods, “freaked out”). He may know the victim’s “story,” but that's not what he imparts in these images. He’s not trying to “connect” with the survivors (though one found him and posted his photo on her website memorial). In fact, the process of research he employs means he’s finding these sites “usually at least 15 years out from the event itself.” He says he’s rejected bull-dozed sites, now parking lots or shopping malls – many, since the West is developing so rapidly and, surprisingly, most of these sites are quite close to roads. Instead he sticks to pastoral landscapes that might restore a dignified connection to the land.

Some photographers want their images to speak for themselves, but here context and intention matter profoundly. For a lesson in their power that later gave me pause when I looked at it again, see the catalogue’s blurred cell-phone image of Chalmers’ partner Diane, taken from behind on a woodsy trail four years ago. It was early in their relationship, he said at the reception, on a day so perfect “the birds were practically dancing on our shoulders.” He repeats the catalogue’s story – that this was Tiger Mountain in eastern Washington, that later someone told them Ted Bundy dumped the heads of three victims near that same trail. All of life is a close call.

This story was originally scheduled for the April 15, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, but appears in the April 22nd issue instead. Stephen Chalmer’s “Unmarked” at Light Work Gallery through May 29, in the Robert B. Menschel Media Center, 316 Waverly Ave., Syracuse 13224, 315.443.1300 or lightwork.org. More on Chalmers at askew-view.com. Nancy covers the arts.

TAGS: Stephen Chalmers, Light Work Gallery, 'Unmarked' photo project, trauma and photography, Geoffrey Gorer's 'The Pornography of Death,' Ulrich Baer's 'Spectral Evidence,' William Earle Williams, Paula Luttringer
EDITION: The Eagle

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