Capturing the moment and beyond
The photography of Michael Eastman
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Arts Editor
Photography is an unusual discipline in
that it can take a moment in time and preserve it in two-dimensional space
forever. And for the viewer, who is stuck in the constant rush of time, those
frozen moments on film are appealing simply because they are otherwise
inaccessible to us.
Still, deeply affecting photography seems
to take us beyond the moment of stasis. It compels us to understand what is
beyond the frame. We seek to know what transpired in the moments before and
after the film was exposed. Fine photography—like that of Michael Eastman who
is currently showing his work at the Anne Reed Gallery in Ketchum—inspires
wonder. While it presents an image in time, the work also poses questions about
all that is not in the image, and so intrigues us.
Eastman’s show comprises two bodies of
work titled "Horses" and "Cuba." As Eastman said in an
interview last week, "Sometimes I feel schizophrenic when I walk from one
part of the show to the other."
On some levels the work is divergent.
"Horses" is a series of sepia-tone photographs that Eastman said he
enjoyed making because it was like marrying painting to photography. He took the
photographs near his home in St. Louis, and then used digital technology to
manipulate first the coloration, then the lighting in specific areas of a given
photograph. Eastman uses a large format camera—a 4- by 5-inch negative—that
enables him to make large prints, sometimes as big as 60 inches by 45 inches.
The final products are arresting not only for the rich textures, but also for
the strength of the moods they evoke.
Eastman finds it ironic that he is using
"21st century technology to make prints that look like 19th century
work." But clearly there is much more to the work than the technology. So
much of the power of the photographs derives from the composition the artist has
conceived: the lines of the animal, the relationship between it and the
background, the lighting. And then there is the timing. Eastman pointed out that
part of the challenge of photographing an animal is to be fast and to somehow
create the sense that the horse is concerned with something other than the
Eastman’s "Cuba" work is also
large format, but unlike the horse images, the artist chose not to use digital
manipulation of the photographs. These are largely, though not exclusively,
architectural shots of the once grand but now decaying homes of the Cuban
aristocracy. He gained access to the country through the Center for Cuban
Studies, a nonprofit educational organization based in New York City.
Eastman went to what he referred to as the
embassy row in Havana. He simply knocked on doors of grand homes built in the
1860s, homes built largely on the wealth created by sugar cane and tobacco.
Eastman started talking to whomever was still there. What he found in two
particular instances were women "so strong and striking and committed"
to holding these grand old houses together. But they aren’t just houses.
Beyond the obvious decrepitude of the places, one is struck with all of the
vestiges of family—a painting of a child who died, framed lockets, photographs
of family. It is hard to ignore the fact that amidst an era now dead, hints of
so much life are everywhere.
These hints of life are what pull us into
the photographs. We want to not only enter these rooms but also to slip into the
rooms outside the frame of the photograph. We want to know more, see more and
understand what transpired in these rooms when they were filled with the
cacophonous sounds of family life.
The fine detail Eastman captures in his
photographs is remarkable, and it invariably tells a story, too. In one titled
"Isabella’s – Two Chairs" the dominant object is an old, once
gorgeous chandelier. Looking close one can see dozens of glass or crystal pieces
of the chandelier that have been reattached to the fixture with tiny red wires,
like the ties that seal the plastic bag around a loaf of bread. It is a subtle
measure of the pride surviving in these women desperately hanging on to their
Talking to Eastman it is easy to see he
has been deeply affected by his experiences in Cuba. What he was most struck
with is the poverty. "There is absolutely no commerce there. It is as if
the place is stopped in time." He said dentists, obviously on the high end
of educational spectrum, were paid an average of about $15 a month. Eastman
tries to give away as much money as he can while there, leaving just enough to
get home, he said. He gave the matriarch of one of the houses, Mercedes, $100.
She was so grateful she broke down and cried. Mercedes died about a month after
Eastman left the country.
"As an artist I should remain
apolitical and just respond to things emotionally. There is a universality of
art that should stay that way." But, he added, with the problems as complex
as they are in Cuba, it’s not always so easy to live by that credo.