THE ALCHEMY OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, prints and drawing, The New Orleans Museum of Art. Excerpts from essay The Alchemy of Photography, Passage, Radius Books.
Photography is everywhere. It slips in and out of our field of vision as we walk through the streets, and it shifts from one handheld screen to another seamlessly. It is in our pockets, accessible at a moment’s notice to capture something, anything in the world, probably while some other device captures us with or without our consent. It has become an instantaneous, ubiquitous, easy, and impersonal phenomenon, so much so that it is difficult to think of photography as something that is more mystery than fact, more craft than technology, and more alchemy than science. And yet those alternate terms—alchemy, mystery, craft—defined the origins of photography, a period in which success was the result of both diligence and accident, and the sudden appearance of the world on surfaces surprised and even terrified those who witnessed it. Over the past two centuries, photography has infiltrated every aspect of modern life, but with this conquest has come disillusionment. Suspicion and wonder have been traded in for an unwavering trust in the photograph and the processes of photography have been explained—perhaps too much. It is no longer something to be feared, it is commonplace. This is not true of all photography or photographers, of course. Thankfully, there are artists like Linda Foard Roberts, a photographic alchemist for the modern world whose work still holds true to the spirit of photography’s origins in its attention to craft, its acceptance of accident, and its interest in the ineffable phenomena of life.
In many of her works, we are left to question if what we see is coming or going, materializing or dissipating. This interest in the question of existence is central, and makes Roberts a true Romantic, in the historical conception of the term. There was once an architect in the Romantic era, who when asked to submit a design for a building, presented two drawings—one of the building as it would appear when finished, and one as it would appear after time had had its way, crumbled, overgrown, and in the final stages of its existence. The architect did not intend this exercise as a bleak comment on the inevitability of death, but rather as a demonstration of how the building would make a beautiful ruin. Like the architect, Roberts is interested in the effects of time, unlike the architect, she does not seek to glorify the ruinous state of things, but rather to reconcile her—and our—own feelings about what exists today and how it might change tomorrow. It is this longer view, and our acceptance of it that can make for a more fulfilling present. This is the message that Roberts the Romantic, the alchemist, gives us, conjuring images of a fleeting world, elegiac records of the present moment, but informed by the past, and hinting at future that is inevitable but also rich with possibility.
A MEASURE OF TIME
Ph.D. New York University. Excerpts from essay A Measure of Time, Passage, Radius Books, 2016.
I met Linda Foard Roberts in the mid-1990s at the Light Factory Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was immediately drawn to her large-scale imagery and use of old lenses (replaced soft focus) that teal together a narrative of intergenerational memory and longing. Roberts and I bonded during my time in Charlotte and she graciously invited me to her home – the landscape in which she stages family memories in Passage. This five-part photographic essay spans over a decade.
Roberts’ images explore loss and futurity in time and place, grounded in her upbringing in North Carolina. A constant in her work is home and family in conversation with nature. Therein she captures lyrical and often fragmented glimpses of a parent, child, or spouse, and juxtaposes living subjects with memory laden objects – a seemingly ancient book, an old leather suitcase, a doll with toy guns and planes encased in an open box.
Her love of photography began at the age of fifteen, when she took a class at Myers Park High School with Byron Baldwin, then an influential local photographer and sought-after instructor. Roberts finds inspiration in the “long history” of photographing one’s family and life in the works of well-known artists from Edward Weston to Sally Mann. She infuses her images with poetry and the arrangements of these large scale works lead viewers on a narrative journey. Loneliness, loss, and isolation loom in many frames, yet are positioned alongside images of hope, regeneration, and the continuum of life.
I am struck by the sheer power of her environmentally-inspired series Grounded. Mighty oak trees, some more than 100 years old, remind Roberts of her childhood, when she began to sketch trees. Yet in her dueling vision, the series evokes death as well as enduring life. In the image Severed, the entangled vine is chopped down so that the host tree can live on; in Mercy, the title suggests impervious survival and religiosity.
Roberts invites us to see beyond that which is visible, and her images lend themselves to fluid interpretations. As I explore her dreamy, impressionistic photographs, I find both family and racial memory in subtle interplay – mine as well as hers. Roberts was a baby when the black southern freedom movement led campaigns in her city of Charlotte. The image Mercy, seemingly timeless, shows a string or ribbon encircling a tree trunk and triggers a sonic response within me. I recall Billie Holiday and Nina Simone singing the iconic anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol,4 in which Southern trees bear the strange fruit of a “black body swinging in the Southern breeze” with “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” As a photographic historian, having curated photographers and writers who respond to lynching imagery, I am reminded of the diverse reading and creative practices we all can bring to Roberts’s powerful image.