It’s about time: Andrea Wallace and photography
The Aspen Times
At the outset of her career in photography, Andrea Wallace took a job with a newspaper in Fitchburg, in central Massachusetts. She worked there three years, but in hindsight doesn’t consider herself to have been especially good at newspaper photojournalism. For one thing, she was young at the time, still in her senior year at Fitchburg State University, and her colleagues in the newspaper’s photography department were far more experienced than she. “Some of them just nailed it every time. I wasn’t as good,” she said.
Another part of the problem was that Wallace seemed inclined toward a different sort of photography. At Fitchburg State, she had found the program too commercial for her tastes, and she found herself wanting to do something more creative and conceptual.
But the biggest factor Wallace identifies as the source of her shortcomings as a photojournalist was the lack of time. “In newspapers, you get an assignment, you might have 10 minutes to make a picture,” she said. “It wasn’t fulfilling for me. I didn’t feel I was good at it, not spending a lot of time with the photos. It was my preference to spend more time with my subjects.”
Wallace has moved on from photojournalism. For five years she has been the artistic director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s photography and digital media program. And while the job involves a bunch of teaching assignments — Wallace leads several weeks of workshops at Anderson Ranch each summer, including Capture to Print, a beginning digital photography class later this month — and administrative tasks, it also affords Wallace time to pursue her own creative projects. And when she does so, time is the essence of her work.
Wallace’s current series of images is Toward Amnesia. In creating the series, Wallace has allowed herself the luxury of time. She began the project in February, and the series, with 15 images so far, is still in progress; Wallace expects to add five more pieces to the series.
The title of Toward Amnesia comes from a 1996 novel of the same name by Sarah Van Arsdale, but the basis of Wallace’s work is intensely personal. “The work is about loss and grief,” Wallace said in her Anderson Ranch office that looks as if it could have been moved into last week. “It comes out of a broken relationship, but also more than that. In the book, she decides she’s going to create amnesia because it’s too painful to live with the memories of the relationship, once the relationship is no longer there. She immerses herself in cold water, does all these things to bring on amnesia.”
Wallace, who is 45 and lives at Anderson Ranch, researched the issue of willful amnesia and tried to bring on her own memory loss to escape from her pain. She took cold showers and lay in the snow. She is dubious about the whether amnesia can be intentionally induced — it hasn’t happened in her case — but the images that have come out of the effort are emotionally striking.
The series will be exhibited in September at Anderson Ranch; the one-person show opens with a reception on Sept. 10 and will run through the month. Eight of the images were featured in Documentation, a recent three-artist exhibition at the Galleries of Contemporary Art in Colorado Springs. And one of the pieces, “Deux Clémentines,” will be included in Anderson Ranch’s Annual Art Auction on Saturday at the Ranch. “Deux Clémentines” has been the lead image for the 33rd Annual Art Auction; it is on posters and on the cover of the auction catalogue.
Another piece in the Toward Amnesia series is “Sleep,” a self-portrait of Wallace curled up in the snow, barefoot and wearing a sundress. The image is captivating, in the color contrast between the perfectly white snow and Wallace’s bright red hair and black dress. There is also a direct emotional engagement; the piece radiates vulnerability and the desire for security.
And there is the presence of time. “Sleep” strongly suggests a narrative, with past and future: Who is this woman, and what brought her to be lying in the snow? Is she going to die? Does she want to? And it deals with an aspect of time that tends to fascinate visual artists, and perhaps photographers most of all, and certainly Wallace at the moment: memory.
“It’s the idea of escape, escape from memories. I wanted to erase the pain from the break-up. The memories were just too goddamn f—king painful,” Wallace said of “Sleep.” “Although it doesn’t work, you can’t escape. They come back in dreams. You have to go through it. I’m not there yet. But I’m trying.”
The Toward Amnesia series, which includes additional self-portraits and images featuring Wallace’s 7-year-old son Beau, is also about being alone. Almost all of the images are limited to just one person. Being alone is an idea that, in these images, is tightly connected to memory.
“I was thinking about separateness — that we long for connection, but we’re separate beings,” Wallace said. “It sounds morose, but we come into the world alone and go out alone. I made images of these ideas of separateness and oneness. It’s the loss of memory, but also creating new memories.”
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Wallace, who began making photographs as a kid with a Kodak 110 instamatic camera, got started as an artist in earnest with a series of images about small-scale ranchers in Kremmling, a rural town in northern Colorado. The project, made as her masters thesis in the University of Colorado, Boulder’s photography and electronic media department, was one of her early attempts at conceptual work, and Wallace came in with preconceived ideas of what she would find in Kremmling. What she began producing were a Bostonian’s naïve notions of Western ranching.
“It was these romanticized, grandiose pictures. I’d stand somebody in the middle of the field,” Wallace said. “That’s what I thought the lifestyle was.”
But Wallace had begun thinking in the long term. She ended up working on the Kremmling images for three years, time she spent reading about ranching and getting to know the people in a three-dimensional way. Over time, the project evolved into a 45-minute documentary. At the center of the film was a couple whose story Wallace would never have known had she not spent loads of time in the community.
“It was a couple who had a baby out of wedlock. The film was all about family secrets, all these secrets and lies in the family,” she said. “And it just happened to be a ranching family. It could have been anywhere.”
Wallace extended the time frame on the Kremmling project by making a sequel several years later. “A lot of times I think about a project for months and then begin shooting,” she said. “I’ll work on a project for a couple of years before it’s enough of a body of work to show.”
Wallace’s most notable image to date came last year. “Relations,” which has been exhibited at the Red Brick Center for the Arts and at a show in Carbondale, and was featured in last summer’s Anderson Ranch Annual Art Auction, was a triptych of portraits — one of Wallace herself, one of her son, and one of Wallace’s mother Marilyn, a Carbondale resident with Alzheimer’s. The three portraits, side by side, trace the progress of time — the expanse of a family history, and what happens to a person as she ages.
“That was me trying to look at relationships, family structures, and what gets passed down — that we look alike, but other things like Alzheimer’s and the preconditions for those diseases,” Wallace said. “And memories. My mother doesn’t have memories anymore. I’m the keeper of memories now. And then my son will be.”
Wallace was thinking about the history of family portraiture when she made “Relations,” but the piece defies the idea of traditional portraiture. Sadness is out front in the images.
“The body language — we’re both leaning out, away from each other, like we’re moving apart,” Wallace said of the images of herself and her mother in “Relations.” “Maybe she’s going into the next phase of life, when she won’t be here anymore. There’s a sadness, not just in her, but me. There’s a strain. To tell the truth, it’s always been a volatile relationship. And you can read that tension.”
As she did with the Kremmling project, Wallace wants to expand the time over which “Relations” unfolds. Last week she tried to shoot for a follow-up, “Relations 2.” “But it was raining and my mother wasn’t cooperative,” Wallace said. “She wanted to play bingo.”
Wallace has started moving into what might be her next series, which addresses time in yet another way. The series will feature couples that have been married for long periods of time. She began with a pair of portraits of local artist Lee Lyon and his late wife Joanne, a former gallery owner who died in May. The portraits, side by side in high-contrast, high-detail black and white, are a provocative reflection on aging and partnership.
To Wallace, photography is entwined with issues of time. The simple act of shooting an image and printing it is playing around with time. “I think photography, more than other art forms, speaks to the passage of time. It’s inherent,” she said. “You take one photo, in one moment, and you hold it up and that moment then supersedes the rest. Photography pulls a moment out of a continuum. You hold it up as something separate.”
For Wallace, that aspect of photography gets emphasized. The art is not only about present, but future and past. She thinks about a specific photo of her mother at the age of 5, on a dock, in a bathing suit.
“I think, Her life has yet to be lived. All her successes and tragedies are in front of her,” she said. “There’s a sadness when I look at her and think what she had in store. But this 5-year-old is oblivious.
“Photography allows us to reflect in that way. It records memories. And it constructs memories. Sometimes our memories are made of the photographs of an event. It’s a complicated relationship.”
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