By D. Eric Bookhardt, Gambit Weekly
It’s hardly a secret that there are differences between reality and photography, yet some of those differences can still be a little surprising. Take dolls and toys. In the real world, dolls and toys ” but especially dolls ” are usually associated with the soft, fuzzy world of childhood innocence. In art photography, their history has long been darker and snarkier if not downright cynical, a tradition that harks back to at least the Dadaists and surrealists if not further.
So, it’s something of a surprise when doll and toy photos appear as a benignly personal presence on gallery walls, yet such is the case with Jennifer Shaw’s Hurricane Story at Farrington Smith. Of course, considering that it all centers around a certain cataclysmic weather event that most of us have come to know a little too well, that is probably a good thing. These days, happy endings are what we are all hoping for as the ongoing ramifications of that event continue to unfold. Even so, Shaw’s saga is not without chills, thrills or suspense. For like all true-life adventures with mythic overtones, it involves an odyssey of exile and return, not to mention a photographer’s adventure into the realm of symbolic storytelling with dolls, toys and makeshift accessory lenses.
Much of Shaw’s story is simple enough and familiar to us all, except for one little twist. Like many of us, she set forth on the weekend of Aug. 28, 2005, with her spouse, cats, dogs and a few days worth of clothes, but unlike most of us, Shaw was pregnant. In fact, she was quite pregnant, and as she puts it, ‘Monday, Aug. 29, brought the convergence of two major life-changing events: the destruction of New Orleans and the birth of our son. It was two long months and 6,000 miles on the road before we were able to return home.” Prior to all this, Shaw was known for her dreamlike landscape photographs and whimsical urban vistas, all rendered as muted black-and-white images taken with a Holga camera. A cheaply made Chinese device, the Holga is prized by some photographers for its oddly poetic, if unpredictable, lens qualities, attributes well suited to Shaw’s visionary sensibilities expressed as images that come across like dream fragments or serendipitous epiphanies in unlikely places. But starting on Aug. 29, 2005, events came too fast and furious for a real-time photographic account, so they had to be recreated after the fact and in miniature ” this time in living color.
The images are as dreamlike as ever and work nicely as a narrative sequence. Much is suggested or left to the imagination as the ever-ambiguous Holga lens strains to encompass the extreme close-up views of miniature people and things, so there is often a sense of objects materializing out of ” or into ” a fog. A seemingly fleeting image of the rear of a pickup truck venturing forth into the blurry unknown is perfectly matched by its almost storybook title, We Left in the Dark of Night. Followed by the duly noted details that comprise subsequent events, the narrative unwinds across states and places involving midwives in hazmat shields, the personal experience of birth followed immediately by televised broadcasts of death, mayhem and chaos in one’s hometown, all followed by weeks of exile that stretched into months.
While all’s well that ends well, Shaw’s sardonic captions and whimsical images reflecting life on the road leave no doubt as to the psychological stresses involved in having one’s life turned upside down while suddenly having to care for a brand new baby. But unlike the scathing cultural critiques of earlier toy and doll photographers such as Hans Bellmer or Laurie Simmons, Shaw’s is a uniquely personal saga, an engaging variation on a near-mythic theme that we, the amphibious tribe of New Orleanians, have come to know all too well.