You wouldn't guess it by the images hanging in the Manitou Center for Photography's newest exhibit, 47hr39min: New Photographs from East of Manitou, but photographer Matthew Chmielarczyk scandalized Anchorage, Alaska in April of 1995. His "Untitled #1", an elaborate, puzzle-like montage of Polaroid transfers depicting a woman fetishistically bound in chicken wire, rope and a gossamer cloth was deemed "a pretty disturbing image" by the vice president of Alaska Pacific University, and the photo was quickly removed from the campus gallery. In protest, the curators closed the whole show.
Just months later, the photo was again in the spotlight when renowned American photographer Jay Dusard chose Chmielarczyk's image, along with another, as two of the 11 honorable mentions awarded in a juried show that hung at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. (The show was, ironically, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts).
Don't be surprised, then, if you're decidedly unshocked by the highly traditional, formal and occasionally pastoral black-and-white photographs by Chmielarczyk and his friend and gallery co-owner/curator Boki Evans. And don't be deceived either. What you also won't guess about this understated show at first glance is that it's a quiet, yet tightly conceived, conceptual project.
As their first guideline, and as the title 47hr39min suggests, Chmielarchzk and Evans set out to shoot all the photographs within a 48-hour time limit. As their second guideline, the pair decided to drive directly east from Manitou Springs as the first leg of what will eventually include all four cardinal directions. Though these were the only formal limits laid out before the project, Evans explained, most of the photos were also taken within 100 yards of each other, often of the same subject.
The project's restrictive framework calls to mind the kind of creative rules laid out by members of France's OuLiPo. (Ouvroir de Littrature Potentielle/ Workshop for Potential Literature). Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the group set out to create new writing techniques by imposing severe restrictions on the way in which a work could be written. The best example of this is probably George Perec's novel A Void, written in its entirety without the letter "e." Perec apparently glued a tack to the "e" on his typewriter and thus "avoided" typing it. Adding to the thematic relevance, the book was about a disappearance. (Improbably, the English translation was also completely devoid of the letter "e.") The theory behind such restrictions, OuLiPo. contended, and often proved, was that limitations foster creativity more than they hinder it.
Chmielarczyk's photos (titled only by their longitudes and latitudes) are particularly haunted by constraint. At least three of his prints depict impenetrable walls and the strange poetry of line, light and shadow that emerge from the surface impassibility. The back of an old brick building and its fire escape create a feeling of cornered nostalgia until you see the "COMPUTERS" sign on the door. Nostalgia turns to lament as the anachronism sets in.
Equally impenetrable and confining is the 8" x 20" panoramic detail of the decaying side of a grain silo. The scale alone would seem to offer room to breathe, but there is no way out of the photo and claustrophobia quickly sets in. You can walk away or try to interpret the strange and dilapidated machinations of the silo.
Boki Evans' photos (all untitled) are more narrative than Chmielarchzyk's, but entirely complementary. Where Chmielarchzyk focuses on time, Evans deals with direction. Evans locates the project, more deliberately recording the shapes that define the prairie: an eerily stark wooden church, a mammoth stack of rectangular hay bails in an otherwise empty field, and a more vertical look at the lines of the silos. Evans' take on form is far more flatly geometrical, though equally empty in his interpretation of landscape.
The crowning pieces in both Chmielarchzyk's and Evans' groupings are also the most closely related. Arriving at a lake just days after a hail storm that killed thousands of pelicans, both chose to photograph a lone pelican body floating like a small white letter "s" on the glassy black surface. The figurative death implied in the other prints shows its face here for the first time. For Chmielarchzyk, the death is apocalyptic -- several dead fish litter the foreground, punctuating the loss -- while Evans' print is more lyrical, the death more incidental.
It's strange that east is the direction of birth, and that these works embody so much emptiness and death. But heading east is also like going backward down the pot-holed, one-way street of manifest destiny into present day New York. So it's no surprise that Chmielarchzyk's print of a marshy and amorphous grass pool, and Evans' horizonless fog offer the only versions of hope in the show: the ooze and directionlessness from which all form is born, and the cloud into which all things disappear.
The Manitou Center for Photography, besides being gallery, has a dark room and a photography library. They are planning a program to mentor Colorado Springs and Manitou-area high-school students, and will also be offering courses for children and one-night potluck shows in the near future.