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Introduction to Signs of Life

Children often collect crystals, bones, stamps, birds’ nests and bubble gum cards.  Are they attempting to emulate the random display of the bowerbird, or are they drawn to these singular objects because they have lives of their own because they offer new realms to the limited horizon of a young person?  My feathers, bones, minerals, old books and more became personal artifacts, the sundry ephemera that expanded my world.  As a child, I did not intellectualize upon my collecting.  Even now it is not systematic; it is intuitive, a part of me.


The objects I like, whether alive or dead, are signs of life. Memento mori on a tombstone says remember death, but it also reminds me that someone once lived.  A row of peapods, alike in structure but alive in their variation, fascinates me.  A row of plastic flowers identical in their structure but dead in their sameness would hold little appeal – unless they have been chewed by my dog, varied, altered by living energy.


The expression of the classical ideals of form is dead matter for me.  But even mortuary examples can come alive through time and human transformations.  When drawn by an 18th-century engraver, a Roman statue of the most formal demean can turn peculiar, perhaps even humorous, and far livelier than the original.  I may change it again by expanding its space with mica, by changing its form with fruit; you will see it as something further transformed.


The protean quality of time and light, the way we perceive the continual flux of reality is close to life itself in its constant permutation.  Objects that are, or have been living things, those at the edges of change, interest me: the pregnant bulb, Indian pipes materializing from rot, a rose fully formed, but at the edge of decay.  The living world seems to consist of fine balances and thin edges: small variations within fragile structures, delicate membranes, narrow temperature and pressure tolerances.  I like the implications of visual edges: the swollen limits of a ripe pear touching a hard line of light, downy feathers confined by a metal grid, a mirror scattering its surfaces into nothing or the thin shell of a bright face, its edges already deteriorating into darkness.


The photographs in this book are still lifes – natures mortes, an art form of death, of transformation, and of life.  The paintings of Juan Sanchez Cotan (Spanish, 1561-1627), inhabited by powerful vegetables in geometric spaces were important to my understanding of what still life can become.  Even the more traditional Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish 17th century still lifes with their torn petals, their sumptuous but imperfect fruit, their improbable and exquisite insects, have the vitality implicit in both growth and decay.  At present, photographic still life seems to me an open arena precisely because of those intrinsic qualities of the medium that distinguish it from painting.  My own exploration is just beginning.  I intend it to continue.


I have said what interests me.  I cannot explain the photographs.


Olivia Parker ©1978 

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