Photographs of Isolation

by Bill Davenport

Amy Blakemore's work is a photography of isolation. Searching for faith in Lourdes, searching for childhood in Oklahoma or searching for natural beauty in New Zealand, Blakemore's photographs show us over and over an approach to authentic experience denied at the last moment by self-consciousness. Blakemore chooses subjects that have strong, traditionally assigned mean­ings (children, pilgrims) and interrogates their tradi­tional meanings, skeptically re-examining the proposi­tion that picture-taking can reveal the sublime. Blake­more's photographs present objects and situations that we feel ought to mean something, but somehow their meaning stands always just out of reach..As if taunting us, the figure in Girl and Hedge gives us a teasing, catch-me-if-you-can grin as she ducks through the gap in the hedge we can never enter.

Blakemore's low-tech cameras produce a characteris­tic blurring and vignetting that she uses with a remark­able fluency to communicate a variety of emotional messages. The mistiness of an ecstatic religious vision in Light, the hostility of a surveillance camera in Ladies Room and the telescopic vision of nostalgia in Yard are all created using the same palette of effects.

Blakemore's early photographs of children focus on the eerie ephemerality of childhood, using blurred action to create a sense of the fleeting moment passing and often hinting menacingly at a dark future.

In Boy and Men, a small (frightened?) boy turns to look at the camera, excluded from the dark wall of suit­ed men's backs behind him. In Girl and Game, a kneel­ing girl throws a Whiffle ball into a set of shadowy gap­ing jaws, making a game of a threat with unconscious irony. In Wall a child jumps up to get a glimpse over a rough stone wall at some dark trees. In many of the images featuring children, the narrow area of focus recalls both the circumscribed world of a child's per­ceptions in which adults appear as a forest of legs and the backyard as a whole world to explore and, at the same time, the selective focus of memory.

Blakemore's pilgrimage photographs examine the places and situations surrounding the mystery of religious faith, defining an unbridgeable gap between sublime, subjective experience and objective reporting. Blakemore's photographs could easily present a senti­mental expression of personal faith, or a satirical lack thereof, but instead occupy an unsettling middle ground that positions the viewer as a sympathetic spectator of other people's religious faith, yet not a participant.

In Gates, Blakemore uses darkness as a symbol for the unknowable, as Rothko does in his paintings in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. A black opening is framed by four waiting figures, each holding a tiny lantern that casts just enough light to emphasize the surrounding darkness. The sense of mystery in the almost black photograph is that of a presence, or an image, about to appear. What will be revealed in that central black square? In both a literal and spiritual sense, the camera cannot say.

In Light, a trio of figures in the middleground look up towards a fuzzy light that could be God, a street lamp or a ufo. Blakemore's photo asks the ques­tion: Is that a holy light? If so, how is one to tell? One gets the sense that Blakemore wants to see the light as holy but is separated from the believing figures in the photo by a conceptual distance succinctly rendered in the photograph as physical space. Their cropped figures turn their backs to the photographer, excluding herfrom their experience.

Many photographers make portraiture a social activity. Blakemore's portraits are antisocial: the ultra close-up faces of Steph and Patrick yearn to be friendly but are trapped behind a blurry screen. Some of Blake­more's strongest colors further depersonalize them into formal abstractions. Blakemore's style is directly oppo­site that of artists who use a pseudo-casual, snapshot style to create a sense of immediate personal involve­ment with the subjects. Wolfgang Tillman's photo­graphs of his hipster friends or Richard Billingham's photographs of his dysfunctional family have a sense of privileged insider-ness that couldn't be further from Blakemore's isolated detachment.

Two images of adult women emphasize a less personal loneliness. In Old Woman in Wales, a dour woman in a checked suit stares at us. Square and tough, she seems to have no illusions and no hope. The hazy focus enforces a sense of her isolation and introspection. Long-suffering, the woman is unaware that a small boy is leveling a bazooka-like telescope at her from behind, in a wry parody of the photog­rapher's intrusiveness. Woman on Street shows an anonymous woman from the back, looking down an empty street with a Cindy-Shermanish theatricality. Unlike Sherman's Film Stills, whose essential subject is glamour and role playing, here the character is less important than the implied event we are waiting for.

Some of Blakemore's first color images are al­most monochrome squares of landscape texture. The green square ofApples or the blue square of Sky are both overlaid with a veiled angst that contrasts sharply with their pleasant pastoral subjects. The apples that dot the pleasant lawn are rotting, wasted. The cloudy square of blue sky is scratched by bare winter branches.

Blakemore's 1997 New Zealand landscapes are more ambiguous. A comparison of Sky (1995) and Sky (Nelson) from 1997 illustrates the difference: the earlier narrative melodrama of the scraggly branches against a winter sky has given way to a blank serenity. Seemingly dispassionate, almost disinterested, each of the New Zealand photographs sets a different emotional tone: a serene Sky; a darkly turbulent Sea; some abject, fuzzy Pools; and a fiery Glowing Tree. Typicallyambivalent about the possibility of genuine emotional content, their extreme, almost sub-jectless formalism invites the viewer to project an emotional flavor onto them while maintain­ing a pretense of random casualness.

Bill Davenport is a Houston artist whose quirky objects have appeared in many shows everywhere. His next show at Inman Gallery includes termite-eaten wood, mystery novels and Pueblo pottery.