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For the week of February 26 - March 4, 2003


Capturing the moment and beyond

The photography of Michael Eastman

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 photographer.

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 family’s past.

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.

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