A visionary moved by the earth's plight
Photographs are usually easy to classify: realistic or abstract; portrait, landscape, action shot, and so on. But the startlingly original images of Robert ParkeHarrison defy simple classification.
Mr. ParkeHarrison's work concerns man's impact on the natural world, specifically relating to industrialization and technology. With his wife and collaborator, Shana ParkeHarrison, he explores many facets of this theme through an elaborate creative process that involves researching ideas, collecting props, constructing sculptures and sets, staging outdoor photo shoots, and finally, cobbling together multiple paper negatives into one powerful and often darkly humorous image.
This thoughtful artist - who is fast becoming known in the world of contemporary art - does not create self-portraits or even barren landscapes. Nor is he just another environmentalist photographer keen on conveying an urgent message.
More than 40 of their sepia-toned images are currently on view in the exhibition "Robert ParkeHarrison: The Architect's Brother" at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass. The show also features sketchbooks, audio interviews, and a public-TV special on the artists, which offer a glimpse into their profound ideas, imaginative methods, and harmonious collaboration.
Inspired by the classic story of "The Little Prince," among many other cultural and historical influences, the ParkeHarrisons' collaged works - mostly either photogravure prints or gelatin-silver prints and mixed media panels - always feature a lone man in a barren world. While struggling to eke out an existence, he takes an interest in preserving the natural world around him. Representing this man is ParkeHarrison himself, who appears in every image as the stand-in for humanity, or Everyman. He wears the same tight-fitting dark suit, white oxford shirt, and slightly worn dress shoes.
Their Everyman evokes quiet reflection, curiosity, and the occasional chuckle as viewers observe his preoccupation with pursuits both serious and absurd.
In "Cloud Cleaner," for example, a gelatin silver print and mixed media on panel constructed in 1999, he carries a backpack full of mops and brushes as he looks up at a dark, ominous cloud. In his 2000 image "Flying Lesson," ParkeHarrison holds both a large birdcage containing a single crow and several other lassoed birds that soar upward as they attempt to pull him up behind them. And in "Mending the Earth," the figure attempts to sew together a deep crack in the earth's surface with an enormous needle.
Their images can be interpreted in many ways, but one thing is certain: They stir thought, says Diana Gaston, a contemporary art curator who narrated a recent public-television special about the ParkeHarrisons' work. "The images make us reflect on our role within the universe," says Ms. Gaston. "The ParkeHarrisons don't lecture us about the environment. Instead, they are all about posing questions and getting us to think about what we are doing."
The ParkeHarrisons don't take shortcuts. Each image takes several weeks of continuous work to complete. Their artistic journey begins by investigating a variety of subjects, including art, film, theater, dance, as well as texts on spirituality, literature, and mythology. During this research stage, says Robert, they are "filling the well" with possible ideas. Then they choose one idea for which they construct a set and sculptures out of their home studio in Great Barrington, Mass.
The work is subsequently moved outdoors - but only at dawn or dusk or on "a perfect cloudy day," he says. "We prefer softened light, and the quality of outdoor light at those times is exactly as we like it." After experimenting with various gestures and movements, Robert takes his agreed-upon pose as Everyman and Shana gets behind the camera to further direct the action before she releases the shutter.
Back in the darkroom, the ParkeHarrisons produce paper negatives, about three to seven of which are pieced together to create the finished image. "We don't want to be restricted by what we see in the lens," says Shana, "so instead of accepting the reality of a single photograph, we manipulate many photographs and layer images just the same way that we layer ideas. We use so many techniques to make the final image; photography is just the recording device."
But they would rather talk about their message than their methods. The ParkeHarrisons feel strongly about the importance of treading lightly upon the earth - and accepting full responsibility when one does not. "As a society, we are not even questioning the implications of technology with regard to the social structure and our environment," says Shana. "We make choices every day that don't support sustainability."
At the same time, the ParkeHarrisons are not without hope. Nor is their Everyman. In fact, says Ms. Gaston, their recent works are especially uplifting, even conveying a healing quality. "Their earlier work focused on really bleak, perilous situations such as cobbling together a breathing machine," she explains. "Now their themes are less about personal survival and aggressive acts and more about listening to the earth and trying to mend it.
"Again, it goes back to 'The Little Prince.' Despite his desperate attempts to resolve certain environmental conditions, he has a wonderful determination and hopefulness about him," Gaston says. "It's not unlike the day-to-day practice of an artist."
• 'Robert ParkeHarrison: The Architect's Brother' was organized by the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. It is at the DeCordova through Jan. 2, 2005. The exhibition travels to the University of Wyoming Feb. 3 to April 3, 2005; the University of New Mexico Oct. 5 to Dec. 11, 2005; and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University March 18 to May 14, 2006.