Artist Focus: Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison

In this session, you will become acquainted with two artists whose work redefines the use of photography These two artists represent a genre I refer to as “Fabricated to be Photographed.” In the slides that follow, you are going to experience a stunning and magical display of a “reality” as interpreted through the mind’s eye of Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison.

The couple has been collaborating for years in the creation of their work. They have a show list that includes engagements around the world. Additionally, their work is included among the top art collections around the country, including that of the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the George Eastman House. While the two artists are known for their photographically derived work, they also lecture extensively on art and our influences on the environment.

In their book titled The Architect’s Brother, the couple portrays our environmentally scarred world as magical, barren, and fallen. The monochromatic images consist of an anonymous figure, The Everyday Man, carrying out the toilsome task of setting our fallen world straight again. The backdrops of these photos have been fabricated with the intention of being photographed. The painstaking world of the ParkeHarrisons lie in these sets, as the couple often spends days creating the backdrops and machinery seen in the final images.

Beauty, chaos, confusion, hope, grief, anger, joy, protection, diligence, whimsy, invention, and burden are just a handful of the feelings that come to mind when viewing the work of Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. In their series Reclamation and Procession, we see a fascinating display of a world that defies our notions of the possible. In the alternate reality that is on display in the work of the ParkeHarrisons, we see the “Everyday-Man” performing his tasks of protection and maintenance. He is seen wearing crude, but elaborately made devices aimed at performing duties that keep the landscape in working order. We get the sense, however, that the tasks at hand are much too large for the work of one man.

While the landscape within these images may, in fact, display a fallen world, the labor of the Everyday-Man restores hope in the heart of the viewer, empowering all of us to share his burden. The ParkeHarrisons remind us of our affect on nature, whether it is the marks we leave on the earth, or the destruction of entire landscapes for materialistic purposes. By manipulating the photographic process through alternative darkroom and printing techniques, these artists have given us images that can be studied and admired for hours. Little do we know, just by looking at these environmental portraits, how much we are being told. Because of their particular tonalities and coloration, these storytelling pictures may at first appear less engrossing than they really are. But upon closer study, one will find that this unique style really enriches the images and gives the artists their own identity. While looking at The Guardian, for example, one can’t help but wonder: if we were in complete control of nature, would we protect it?

While viewing these images, I want you to consider how the titles of the work inform you. For example, how does the inclusion of the name, Migration inform this image? Or how does the title, Mending the Earth clarify the purpose of the scene on display in this image? Titles have a profound responsibility to their work; they can add further credibility to inform viewers about events otherwise uncertain, and they can add a deeper level of meaning to the work. The ParkeHarrisons use titles in their work in a way that marries clarity and meaning without destroying the mystery.

In this work, we, as viewers, sit front-row to a reality that has been created with great detail and believability. Consider why this work is so realistic yet obviously constructed. Why is it so easy for us to look at these images and see ourselves performing these same tasks? How does this work change your approach to photography as more of a means to an end, or a tool, rather than the end itself? What is the aim of your work? Do you want to bring your viewing public into your world, making them aware of new possibilities and alternate realities? How will you convince them?

The ParkeHarrison’s work invites us to explore the possibilities of conveying a message in a way that demonstrates the involvement in their own message. Working as models, craftsmen and photographers, Shana and Robert have created an alternate reality that heightens our awareness of the world around us, calling us all to action as stewards of this land and its protection.

~ John Trefethen

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One Response to “Artist Focus: Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison”

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