Maggie Taylor

  

 

Maggie Taylor:

Circumstantial Evidence

 

 

by A. D. Coleman

 

noun:

In law, evidence that is drawn not from direct observation of a fact at issue but from events or circumstances that surround it; evidence providing only a basis for inference about the fact in dispute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       In her digital photomontages Maggie Taylor opens for us a multitude of doors into a seductive, richly nuanced dream world. However, unlike many who explore the cross-breeding of imagery that digital systems enable, Taylor creates a microcosm with deep ties to the past. Not just the immediate past that becomes an inevitable aspect of each photographic exposure we make, but the distant past of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

       She achieves this by incorporating into many of her images fragments of old photographs that she scavenges from such sources as local scrap heaps and eBay on the internet. These are mostly portraits — of individuals, of family clusters, or of small groups, originally made (due to the technical limitations of the medium at that time) under the controlled lighting situations of photographers' studios. Photography itself was still new enough that such occasions had a formality lost to us with the advent of the casual snapshot. The subjects dressed for the occasion, presenting themselves seriously to the camera — in many cases for the very first time, and in some cases for the only time in their lives they would have their picture made.

       What became of these people? We'll never know. What became of their portraits? They made their way into Maggie Taylor's hands. How did that happen?

       Photography may have entered the visual culture of every country in the world, but not always at the same time, nor did it permeate every population to the same extent. Economics and education played their roles in producing these variations. Notably, the medium thrived and enjoyed official governmental support and encouragement under some political systems but not others. Moreover, in some situations the stiff broom of ideological change swept large chunks of a culture's photographic history not only into what Trotsky derisively called "the dustbin of history," from which retrieval remains possible, but into the literal garbage can, from which there is usually no return.

       Wherever photography established itself and cameras, film, and photographic materials appeared, photographs have both multiplied and vanished in vast quantities. No culture can preserve everything. But these flimsy scraps of light-sensitive paper (and sometimes metal, or glass) show a remarkable capacity for survival, though often severed from their original contexts and effectively orphaned. So, in the west — certainly throughout North, Central, and South America, all of Europe, and the Nordic countries — it's possible to wander through large and small organized archives of photographs dating as far back as the 1830s, as well as private collections of family-album material, and to accumulate your own collection from discarded heaps of imagery offered for purchase in flea markets, antique stores, and yard sales, or free for the taking in abandoned houses and junk piles.

       Beginning in the 1960s, photographers and others involved with the medium found themselves drawn not only to conserving some of these images and objects but also to considering how they might recontextualize such artifacts and return them to active life in the postmodern image environment. The answers ranged from Lee Friedlander's straightforward, respectful reprinting of the negatives of E. J. Bellocq to Paolo Gioli's photographs of the retouched sides of a studio photographer's negatives, from Gary Brotmeyer's miniature photo-assemblages to Carrie Mae Weems's meditations on daguerreotype portraits of African victims of the slave trade, and from Van Deren Coke's solarizations of new prints made from anonymous glass-plate negatives to Boris Mikhailov's large grids of "found" Soviet snapshots.

These reconsiderations of what has become known generically as "vernacular photography" constituted a distinct tendency in photographic practice, if not a formal movement, several decades before the advent of digital imaging. But digital imaging — and, specifically, the digital scanner in combination with imaging software, especially Photoshop — has facilitated such explorations in unprecedented ways, expanding the ranks of those involved in such investigations.

Taylor's generation of photographic picture-makers came of age in their medium at a time when computers became available to the general public. Grounded in the traditional craft of photography, she spent her first decade in the medium making suburban landscapes in black & white and still lifes in color with an old 4x5 view camera, working in natural light. Then, in 1996, she began to explore the operation of the flatbed scanner as a different form of camera, gradually moving toward a production system that's entirely digital.

She started with an Apple computer and a flatbed scanner that Adobe had sent to her husband, Jerry Uelsmann, in the hope that he would exploit its possibilities. But Uelsmann, a pioneering photomontagist who uses traditional darkroom methods for his work, didn't find these new tools suitable for his purposes, and soon set them aside. Taylor took them up, made them her own, and began to build what has evolved into a durable and substantial body of work.

A common misconception holds that digital photomontage is considerably easier than the same activity in the darkroom. This is true only in the elementary sense that it's faster to switch on the computer and scanner, open Photoshop, scan two images, and drop on onto the other than it is to get darkroom chemistry set up and impose one exposure onto another on a sheet of light-sensitive paper. Once one gets to intricate, detailed works like those of Uelsmann and Taylor, however, their very different processes are equally labor-intensive. Using multiple negatives set up in different enlargers, along with a repertoire of standard printing strategies (burning, dodging, masks), Uelsmann generates his photomontages by employing techniques common to photography since the late 1800s. Using multiple scans, Taylor superimposes her selections on each other in Photoshop; her images may have 60 or more layers, each carefully adjusted to the others, not unlike lacquerware.

The American dancer, singer, and actor Fred Astaire once said "If it doesn't look easy, you're not working hard enough." Taylor doesn't seek to draw attention to the effort involved in her art, though she has virtuoso skills; she makes all that transparent, invisible, so that the viewer experiences only the result. In addition to old photographs she also scans objects, man-made and natural, and incorporates photographs she herself has made of landscapes and other subjects. Yet no matter how disparate the components when she starts, or how improbable her scenarios, when she's done the images appear seamless, each element integral to the whole.

Perhaps these are glimpses of heaven, or hell — or limbo, that place where those who have passed on wait for the announcement of their final judgment. By turns ominous and comical, somber and tender-hearted, Taylor's digital montages invite us into a decidedly irrational alternative universe in which women float like balloons and wear fish as hats and seashells as dresses, cows hang suspended from the sky, and birds fly around carrying pictures of eggs in their claws. If, as superstitious people once believed, photographs capture the souls of their subjects, then Taylor constructs new living environments for the people whose likenesses she appropriates, designing new spaces for their spirits to inhabit, rich with color, full of adventure and surprise.

In addition to images of a world or worlds she invents out of her own inspiration, Taylor has devoted much time in the past few years to creating visual counterparts to Lewis Carroll's beloved fable, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It seems altogether appropriate for a visual artist grounded in photography (and with a degree in philosophy to her credit) to provide illustrations for a book written by a man who was a mathematician and a serious amateur photographer. Alice as a written fiction is a particularly imagistic work, full of optical illusions, inexplicable events, and extraordinary characters who spring to life in the mind's eye of the enchanted reader. Producing pictures that can exist within the context of such a literary accomplishment without Carroll's genius overwhelming them is a challenge in itself. Making images that can evoke his magical narrative yet also stand alone as autonomous works is another feat. Taylor achieves both these ends in her delightful "Almost Alice" series, her most extensive project to date.

Now at mid-career, Taylor has established herself as a gifted digital photomontagist. Like many of her generation who made the transition from "wet" or "chemical" photography to electronic tools, she has found that everything she learned in studying the original technology proves relevant to digital procedures. Digital imaging may threaten to undermine our assumptions about the reliability of the photograph as evidence, but at the same time it promises to revitalize photography, offering us new and unanticipated ways of making active use of the photographs that swarm around us. Taylor has populated a new planet with the ones that have come her way. She invites her viewers to come and visit, while also encouraging them to bring forth new worlds of their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Copyright 2008 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.