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Plight Of The Everyman: The Photography Of Robert And Shana ParkeHarrison

Plight Of The Everyman: The Photography Of Robert And Shana ParkeHarrison
The damage man has caused to the environment is one of the recurring themes in the work of husband and wife photographers Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. But instead of documenting environmental destruction, they combine performance, sculpture, and painting into surreal photographs featuring Robert as an Everyman character.

Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison Lecture

Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison will talk about their work this Wednesday night at 7pm at the Museum of Photograph Arts. The presentation, "Mending the World: The Collision of Nature, Culture & Humanity," and is sponsored by the SDSU Art Council.

The damage man has caused to the environment is one of the recurring themes in the work of husband and wife photographers Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. But instead of documenting environmental destruction, they combine performance, sculpture, and painting into surreal photographs featuring Robert as an Everyman character.



Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. They are contemporary artists whose photographs combine painting, performance art, sculpture and collage.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In one of their famous series of photographs called the architect's brother, Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison show us a man kneeling on the ground holding an over sized needle. Of in a desolate monochrome landscape, we see that he's attempting to sew together a fissure in the soil. The picture is called mending the earth. This week, the ParkeHarrisons will be the featured guests at an event at the museum of photographic arts called mending the world. The conversation will explore the many levels of meaning in the images of these famed photographers, as they combine sculpture, painting and performance in their camera work. It's a pleasure to introduce my guests, Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. Shana and Robert, good morning. Thanks for coming in.

SHANA (PARKEHARRISSON): Good morning, thanks for having us.

ROBERT (PARKEHARRISSON): Yeah, thanks for having us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I want to tell our listeners that as we're talking they can see images of your photographs on line at our culture lust blog, that's at Now you said of yourselves, I believe that you think of yourselves more like painters than photographers. Why is that?


ROBERT: Well, I think because when we make an image we don't go out into the world and take our camera and search for it out in the world. In fact, what we do is invent our images. And we build them. We start out by drawing and talking among each other, and then the ideas start to grow from that, and in that process. And then we begin building props and finding locations to photograph staged images. So it's a constructed image, not one found in the everyday world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Shana, since it is a constructed image, [CHECK] what is it is that photograph brings to this rather than a painting?

SHANA: Well, photography deals with perceived truth or reserved reality. So when we're bringing these ideas together, and instead of using paint to portray them, then that makes the viewer think of the image differently. They -- we all believe that photographs are real. And so we look at it, and we begin to image it as though it's a real action that's taking place, as opposed to a painting where we can see the brush strokes and we know that it's coming from someone's mind.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, a lot of your work centers around humans' relationship to the environment and to technology. I'm wondering when your interest in that theme began.

ROBERT: Well, we think of it beginning probably around the time we were living in New Mexico. And it was a new place for us to live in that type of environment. And we were very influenced by the culture there. The native American culture, the landscape, and seeing that beautiful place also seeing the manipulation by the military, by large amounts of population trying to carve their, you know, place to live in the desert. And New Mexico has always been just a revered beautiful land of enchantment place. And -- but it was also a time that both Shana and I began working together and our artistic vision formed in that place. And from all of that working, it really infused the work, and started to take shape at that time, responding to all of those elements.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you take it this step forward from that initial idea to injecting yourself and your own sort of man-made contraptions into a very sort of alien environment. Where did you come up with the idea of this, especially in the architecture's brother? This idea of this sort of sepia, misty, monochrome kind of a world?

SHANA: Well, some of that came out of the fact that we're not very good photographers. And what I mean by that is we're -- both of us actually have backgrounds in art, and we have always just used photography as a manipulative tool. So when we make an image, especially the IMAGES from architect's brother, those images are made up of anywhere between 5 and 50 different photographs of will so we piece them together in a very antiquated way, and in order to make them look seamless, all of this work was done pre-Photoshop, so in order to make them look seamless, we figured out a way to paint on top of them, and also to manipulate them in the dark room so that they look fused, so that they looked like one image. Of and the result of that is this very broken down imagery that has an antiquated look to it, because it sort of looks like it's been walked on. You know, it's very, very worn, and that allows someone to believe that it's from a time past.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison, we're talking about their photographs, and we're talking, of course, about the presentation Mending the World, that they're going to be giving at the museum of photographic art this week. I want to talk more about the Architect's Brother, and remind people that we do have images on line, at the culture lust blog on the, because I think when they see them, they may think oh, yes, I have seen these photographs before. Tremendously popular, a critically acclaimed book came out in the year 2000, and Robert, you are a recurring character in these photographs. Tell us about the character that you portray in this series.

ROBERT: Well, the character, you know, I think of myself in the work not so much self portraiture, but more as a stand in for humanity. And being that character, I feel like I'm portraying a sensibility. I want the viewer to see through me and have empathy and see this person earnestly trying to make things work or find some sort of sense as to why the earth is this way in these images, and just to be guided along through this story telling that we do within the work. And it took quite a long time for us to arrive at that identity in the work. And thinking about well, what would I wear, and we arrived at using this black suit that doesn't fit so well, and my white cuffs show quite a bit. And will it has a -- kind of a presence of someone who is in some ways kind of an idiot savant sort of character. And I think that when we hear people talk to us about our work, they see in that person a kind of sadness, hope, futility, and we like all of those kinds of feelings and senses that people have when they see the working and they're able to project themselves into that kind of sensibility. So I feel in some ways we've captured a kind of person that people are able to attach themselves onto, which we really like that. It's a theatrical device that we use to tell a story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's interesting that you say theatrical device because it reminds me of the kinds of characters that theatre people, movie people used to make in a time past. I think Charley Chaplin, and this same sort of outfit he would wear over and over and over again to identify that character and get -- and not have to reestablish it all the time. But so that it was something that the audience would immediately recognize. Is that kind of thing, did you want that sort of immediate recognition in the audience for your pictures as well?

SHANA: Well, I don't think that that's initially what we were after. But we found that it was a very effective tool so that part of the story was already told. So when a person would enter into a gallery and see the working then they could move beyond those initial indications of what the person was wearing, what the person looked like, and move directly into the actions that were taking place. So it becomes a given, you know, you're already halfway there. And you get to go even further with each image. I'm gonna use one image that I think it's easy to describe on radio, and kind of -- people can sort of visualize. It's from the series called the architect's brother, and it's called pollination, it shows a miniaturized everyman who has claimed up a stalk of a dandy lion and is blowing huge seedlings into the air. Where does the inspiration for an image like this come from, that synthesizes so many surreal elements into something that appears in a photograph almost real?

ROBERT: Well, I think -- that one was quite a lot of fun to make, to make an image where my action wasn't necessarily so much about healing. That's a more aggressive performative, almost expressionistic kind of action that I'm doing. I think when you create a kind of format or stylistic approach that we have in the work we're constantly having to reinvent it so it doesn't become repetitive and stale, and it's been over the years probably more challenging to stick with an approach that we have, rather than changing it and getting too far away from it. And I think with that particular image, we wanted to play around with scale, and the idea of that figure being, like you said, miniaturized and out of place, and in a kind of situation where things are just not quite what they seem. And a bit of a playful quality to that image as well.

SHANA: But also in that image, because I often don't think of it as the person being miniature, but rather that nature's completely out of control. So it's huge, and he's having to actually work with nature in order to pollinate.


SHANA: So that, you know, that's a different take on it. And certainly within our more current work, that's an idea that we deal with quite a lot. We deal with how nature is morphing so quickly, so aggressively as a reaction. And what those possibilities are. And that, again, becomes very surreal. We don't want to stick to exactly what the scientists tell us. We want to be very imaginative with the ideas so that our impression of nature isn't just based in what we know or what we think we know through science.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned, Shana, is that you did these photographs before photo shop, before it became easier.

SHANA: Right.

THE COURT: To manipulate images. I'm wondering if you could just take us through a little bit of how difficult it was to do this. You told us that you painted on the photographs a bit to change it. And then did you photograph those painted over images?



SHANA: Well, first of all, I would say that what we used to do is easier than doing photo shop.


SHANA: For us. But we're learning and we're getting better every day. The process that we used is a process called paper negatives. And it's an antiquated process. It's where you take multiple images and you scale everything appropriately in the dark room so that if you want Bob to be a certain size in comparison to the -- for instance, the dandelions in pollination, then you size all of these things appropriately, and you print those things and you tape them together. And that becomes your paper negative or paper positive. Then you start repeated through the dark room, turning it into a negative, and slowly over multiple generation it is of going back between positive and negative images, you clean it up and you literally make it one image. And from there, you then mount it, and we would paint it after that because there would still be imperfections that we didn't want the audience to see.

ROBERT: We actually thought we invented this process, but that's not true at all. And working with pen hall photography, which we did early on, helped us to realize that light can travel through paper, and by contact printing it, it's a very remarkable process. It's very magical, and very time consuming but a way to really give an image a different quality. It breaks it down and makes it almost like a drawing.

A photograph. And that's a quality that we really enjoyed working with, and still do within our work, that breaking down of the image and making images more aligned with pictorialism, which was an early movement of photography where painting and photography are merged together to create a kind of a really unique sort of experience for a photograph.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who does what in your collaboration? Obviously, Robert, you are the subject, at least of many of the series of photographs that you have. But do you have a definite jobs that you do or is this sort of a -- every photograph you sort of do different kinds of jobs together?

SHANA: It's very organic, it just depends on what's going on from day to day. If it's my turn to drive my daughter some place, then Bob's doing something else. And vice versa. But it does tend to be that I take the photographs and he is often in them. Although with our more current work, that's not necessarily the case of.


SHANA: So we don't -- we work together to conceive of the images and we work together to build the props and make all of the decisions up to the time of photographing, and then that's when there tends to be a little bit of a split where I become the director and he becomes the actor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's what I was gonna ask, so you do direct him in these photographs.

SHANA: Of course.

ROBERT: Yeah, I don't know how to walk very well and pose. Shana has a background as a ballet dancer. So I see a lot of choreography in the work that, you know, the gestures that I present in the image are really not how I would hold something or hold a hammer or needle to sew. So her experience in choreography, I think, really comes through with evoking motions and gestures to the work, an implied movement. And you know, it's interesting, collaboration for us, I think, the way it works, the kind of alchemical process that happens, you discover things that you probably wouldn't discover if you were working in a single approach. And you realize different new ideas, and some images actually become more one of ours than others, and sometimes we're kind of leading along with, you know, either I'm going with Shana on a particular idea or she's going with me on a particular image, and that happens all throughout the work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I referenced architect's brother from 2000, your most recent series I believe is called counter point. And I'm wondering, in these images you're still dealing with the idea of humans and nature and technology. Are they -- can people find hope in your images?

SHANA: I think that hope is a lot easier to find in the architect's brother. That narrative is much more defined and it often balances positives and negatives. In our images, gray dawn, and counterpoint, that -- both of these series tend to be a little more ambiguous and quite a bit more visceral. And as a result of being more visceral, they -- they're not as whimsical. And that's often where hope is found is in making fun of ourselves, and you know, making light of things. And also in the newer work, we are focused very strongly on the everyman character not longer being in control. Nature is very much in control.


SHANA: So that's the protagonist.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to end it here, I'm sorry, I've enjoyed this conversation so much. I've been speaking with Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. I want everyone to know that they will talk more about their work at the Museum of Photographic Arts, Joan & Irwin Jacobs Theater it's at 7:30 PM, this Wednesday, March 19th, the presentation mending the world, the collision of nature, culture, and humanity is sponsored by the SDSU art council. Of thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SHANA: Thank you.

ROBERT: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you can go on-line if you'd like to comment, Days.