After graduating from Wellesley College in 1963 with a degree in the History of Art, Olivia Parker began her career as a painter, and became involved in photography in 1970. Mostly self taught in photography she usually constructs what she photographs in the studio. She has had more than one hundred one-person exhibitions in the United States and abroad, and her work is represented in major private, corporate and museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester. Portfolios of her work have been published in Art News, American Photographer, Camera, Camera Arts, Popular Photography and numerous other magazines in the United States, Europe, and Japan. There have been three monographs of Parker’s work: Signs of Life (Godine,1978), Under the Looking Glass (New York Graphic Society, 1983), and Weighing The Planets (New York Graphic Society, 1987). She has lectured and conducted workshops extensively both in this country and abroad. In 1996 she received a Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award.
Olivia Parker makes black and white and color photographs in many formats. In the last four years she has been using her photographs as source material for digital images. At present she is working on A History of the Real as told by Searchers and Players that involves toys, games and teaching aids as well as the stuff of ordinary still life intersecting with fragments of the history of science to tell tales of discoverers, foolers and fools, buyers and sellers, pundits and clods, the extremely stubborn and those who would organize everything into neat and tidy packages. These are stories of the constantly changing perceptions of what is real in the human mind and some attempts to make illusions real.
John Paul Caponigro What was it about photography that captivated you? You had the painting skill but somehow you got carried away with photography.
Olivia Parker Photography, even though some people refer to it as a mechanical process, forces you to reach out to the world in front of you. With painting I found that I was going more and more inward, so that things were coming from my head. I really like looking through the camera at what was in front of the camera, then it comes back through the camera and the choices make it my photograph. So often during the process things happen in the photograph that I couldn’t have anticipated.
The biggest transformation comes through what happens with the light. This still fascinates me even though I am doing computer work. I do a lot of thinking about what is happening with the light. Some of the computer pieces have a general soft light, as do some of the photographs. Sometimes I like to work with a very soft, natural light. But I also like to work in sunlight. It continues to fascinate me. This morning I had a very odd little crystal item and I spent time just seeing what would happen when the light went through it. It was totally unexpected.
JPC As you were speaking about this I was reminded of some of your images in the “Signs of Life” book.
OP Yes, a lot of that light is coming through pieces of glass. I was amazed at what could happen depending on the light.
JPC The light to takes on an animate presence.
There is a powerful sense of construction and accumulation in your work. I was thinking about the notion of piecing things together. Many photographers attempt to create a straight document to represent a seamless “objective” representation of the external world. That’s one use of photography. Others construct. This is another use of photography. You often merge drawings and texts within photographic images. Would you call it collage or montage? I guess we should probably call it montage, because we are no longer dealing with a cut edge or the layering of different materials in the final product. After the final construction is in place, everything within these pieces becomes a single plane of silver or ink.
OP That’s right. And that happened before I was using a computer, the light can give the work a kind of a seamlessness that you wouldn’t get with collage. Using the computer is such a natural thing for me because I was already putting things together.
JPC One of the things I find is that there is often a play between calling attention to what was deliberately manipulated and attempting to hide the manipulation. It is much easier to hide the manipulation when working on the computer. This sets up a new kind of dialog with the materials and with the viewer.
OP Yes, that whole idea interests me because somehow it’s very easy to do the things that are obviously manipulated, but to do things that are subtle, that might or might not be manipulated, can get much more interesting.
JPC How do you find working on a computer now?
OP I really like it because you are free to perceive and do things that you couldn’t before. In some ways I’m glad that I was already on a path, that I was working with certain themes, that I was up and going visually, if you will, because you have the freedom to do so much that it must get pretty hard to choose if you’re not already headed in certain directions.
JPC We were talking about that while teaching down at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre this winter. It can be the hardest thing to speak to students about honing in on a personal vision and not getting carried away with the tools. But I too find it incredibly liberating and extremely exciting.
OP I still like to make silver prints. I think at least for a while I will make straight 4×5 black and white negatives. But I found that some of that work is following along some of the same paths as the computer work I’m doing and that they work very nicely together. Sometimes in the processes of making the negatives for straight work I’ll do a few other things that I will use on the computer. The combination just works very well. I am very happy with the prints from the computer, the ones Nash is doing. As much as I like to make silverprints, it’s nice to be able to work on a different kind of paper with inks; you get a different kind of richness. Since I came from a background of other media too, I enjoy that.
JPC Painters are used to looking at a wider variety materials aren’t they? You still work with the regular straight silverprints as well as the computer. I’m wondering why you would turn back to the traditional after seeing all the control you have on the computer?
OP I have images and ideas that I want to work out in silver. They work well that way.
JPC Sure but you could make a new negative digitally or expose silver paper straight from a computer file. Still you go back in the dark room and get your hands wet.
OP Somehow, what happens with light is different. Silver yields a different feeling than ink. Actually, because many of the negatives print with a rich tonal range they work as Nash prints too.
JPC They are totally different material to respond to – both are beautiful. The traditional processes have been, are and will remain wonderful. People continually ask me; “Is your dad interested in the computer?” He’s curious, but he doesn’t need it. He’s been getting great results for years with what he’s been doing. There really isn’t any need for him to pick up a new tool.
OP No. I think it just means that as a tool, it suits some more than others. There is no reason that every photographer should gravitate towards digital at this point. I see no reason that photography or photographic printing should die because of computers. I think that we may see more negatives go into the computer and then print to silver prints, say. That is something I might do at some point.
JPC For color printers there really is a significant advantage; the ability to manipulate color is vastly superior on the digital platform.
OP I find that sometimes if I work in other places. I do work in museums, fascinating older museums, that have every light color and contrast situation you can imagine, in different places and together. There are all kinds of bizarre colors. I did some work at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia a few years ago and being able to deal with the color transparencies on the computer was wonderful. I don’t think I could have of printed them otherwise. Also I was using a medium format camera because I was beginning to run out of time. I could straighten my perspective afterward. There is a real sense of the place and space in what you end up with.
Using traditional means there are some situations that you can only do so much with. But now working on the computer you can do much more. There are certain images that it would be hopeless to do any other way.
JPC It is astonishing what you can do. Think of what future generations will take for granted. It’s not a substitute for good technique but you can extend the photographic process to great effect. I can see the day when we’ll have filmless capture, when we won’t have enlargers but lasers exposing various materials. But we’ll still be making light recordings. Photography won’t die. It will evolve.
OP Exactly. I would think it would be a long time before silverprinting would completely go, just because it is a different way of recording light. It may become more of a precious thing, used only as an art form. Do you think?
JPC Yes, I could see that. For the arts we will always want the material because it’s beautiful. We are relying on big corporations who depend on a mass market, where we constitute less than five percent of the market. For them it may no longer become profitable to make the materials. We might have to go back to handcoating our own papers. But I can’t see silver disappearing; it’s too beautiful.
There has been a lot of talk recently about appropriation. I wonder where you felt the appropriate limits of fair use are. After all, you have used other peoples images in your own work.
OP Loosely translated, Picasso said, “Steal like mad, but make it your own.” But I do have strong feelings about what I would use. Most of what I use, in my computer work, is my own. Then I use a lot of things from early science books, where there is clearly no copyright to. I would not use any work of a living artist.
JPC Out of respect for that artist?
OP Yes! I just don’t think it’s right. And I know people have used some of my things for advertisements and other sorts of things, in Europe particularly. They lifted them right out of the books, they didn’t need the web to get at them. It’s very frustrating – particularly if they do a bad job.
I’ve used a few paintings but they’ve been from the fifteenth and sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And they’re things that are in the public domain. Usually they’ve been a fairly small part of my image.
JPC So what we’re getting at here is that the image isn’t substantially someone else’s work.
OP Right. And I have seen work done on the computer where people have taken material from current magazines and not changed it that much. The power of the image is coming from the original photographer’s image. That bothers me when people do that.
JPC In your slide show you read several passages from your own writings regarding your current work A History of the Real; Toys, Games, and Teaching Aids.
“Toys, games, teaching aids, and even the objects of daily life, are all attempts to mediate between the chaos of reality and man’s passion for understanding by utilizing classification and order. In my work, I depict the intersection of these objects of comfort and despair (still life), as well as toys, games, and teaching aids with the evolving history of scientific knowledge. These are stories of the constantly changing ideas of what is real in the human mind, some attempts to make illusions real, and the search for greater order or greater freedom amidst ever changing perceptions of reality.”
” My toys evolve from such traditional strategies of toy making as the creation of automata, the changing of human or animal forms toward caricature (whether monstrous or juvenile), or the piecing together of odds and ends. Some reflect the method of toy makers who know very little about the sources of their toys, be they helicopter or elephants, but proceed anyway. In this vein, I have dedicated a pull toy to the Reverend Mr. Johnston, who published an elaborate seventeenth century illustrated natural history filled with pictures of animals he had never seen. In other work I have explored the use of games as manifestations of mental models of reality or as metaphors for emotional situations.”
“What teachers wrote on the blackboard at school was inherently assumed to be true, but I wasn’t so sure. My uncertainty is evident in the blackboard pictures. All I can say is that the chalk drawings and taped paper on my blackboards came from books thought to be true at the time they were published. Blackboards began as small slates, almost an educational toy. They have been around so long they have become an icon of education, but when left unguarded, they can become tools of subversion or items of play again, open to graffiti and games.”
“Occassionally, I find objects that are inherently contradictory in nature. For example late eighteenth century Chinese export porcelain decorated with seventeenth century anatomical engravings. Who would enjoy eating from plates and vessels decorate with innards? These objects interested me because they elegantly break the rules of the dining table. I like the so much I decided to make my own.”
“Still lifes juxtapose objects to depict the comfort found in a table with food or a vase of flowers or to show the despair of the vanitas or momento mori. These images retain the formal shell of the genre, but have elements of the unexpected. Still life has sometimes been dismissed as insignificant, yet still lifes remain. I think that their persistence has to do with their proximity to the most basic concerns of human life: food, shelter, sex (with its associations of life and growth), and death. Still lifes permit endless expressive experimentation within a form that remains close to universal human experience.”
A History of the Real done on the computer?
OP Mmmm. Otherwise too.
JPC Everywhere the absurd.
OP It’s something that’s so much a part of life. I mean, you never know!
JPC Surrealism is very much a part of our lives. Striking combinations tend to jar us out of our ordinary boundaries. Art asks us to look at things in a new way. And science is a discipline that helps us discover what we wouldn’t ordinarily see.
OP I think they’re very closely related.
JPC It is often the absurd that marks the signpost for new territory.
OP These seemingly very separate categories start crossing over.
JPC Many people tend to relate to photography as the ultimate objective vision, an incontrovertibly factual representation of the external world, that through its practice the world records itself with a minimum of bias or prejudice.
OP And the thing is really how people look at things and what they think is real. The more you go along in life the more you find the absurdity of some of it. And so often so much is blocked out, or so much is added by the imagination. I think that is one of the reasons I like old science books. Some people really got carried away.
JPC Think of the “scientific” representations of Native Americans when the first European settlers came to America. Some of those monstrosities couldn’t possibly have existed.
OP And then some of them get very elegant in a Europeanized way, the noble savage bit. This picture, Action Attraction, that has the Power Ranger type toy (Spawn), the border is from a sixteenth century medical book which has “monstrous births”, but also what we would call monsters, all in the same book. Here was someone who was a physician in Paris in the 16th century!
JPC The camera is capable of representing much more than we are able to see. Photographic vision can be quite different from human vision. And there are times when the camera can distort what was actually there.
OP People have been trying to fool other people since photography was invented.
OP I can’t help but like him. He was busy outraging everbody, yanking their emotions around.
JPC He wouldn’t be yanking emotions around if people weren’t so invested in what they thought photography and painting were and should be. The documentary nature of photography is very tenuous. It’s not that it can’t be used that way, it can be used to make factual recordings, but it’s a dangerous notion that it does this implicitly, that it instantly describes the truth.
OP Especially now with the computer, which undermines the documentary use of photographs. But all along there has been manipulation. Now there’s more and more written about older documentary photographs. “Oops, there was something going on here.”
JPC That’s always been the case. I think anyone who studied documentary photography, before this technology became available, would see that. But I’m not sure that falsifies the notion of documentary photography, I think it just displaces its authority. We should be mindful that the integrity we expect out of photography doesn’t reside in the technology but rather with the right application of it.
OP Exactly. It’s the difference between an essay and fiction. It’s a question of how it was written. It’s the same as with words.
JPC You have interesting things to say about how games reflect culture.
OP I think they are models of situations in culture. Human beings are always trying to structure things so that they will be more understandable and more navigable. Games can be working models. Games often have very set rules. Often there is a game board with delineated outlines. There seems to be sort or a pleasure that comes from dealing with a situation that is so manageable or controlled. You know when it’s going to be random or controlled by a throw of the dice. Even when there is that randomness, there are still limits. By contrast, in real life where there are rules and they often break down, things get messy. Its fascinated me, what games are. Almost all civilizations seem to have some.
Even the terminology starts getting somewhat close to reality when they talk about war games and such. I know there was one picture I did that involves a lot of little wax figures I found in a flea market in England. They had been made by a Swedish sculpture in the eighteen-seventies for his children. Well the children had played with them a lot and they were really beaten up and yet when you look at them they flicker back and forth between something that’s obviously a toy and something else, because they are little human figures, this little bit of the horror flickers in and out of them. So that’s a good picture of what I call fiction and non-fiction, because it does get to the edge of reality and non-reality.
JPC You can look at the process of art the same way. For all of the things that we go through, do, and conceive, things don’t always happen the way we expect.
OP Oh, definitely. I think that the whole process of trying to by creative whether it’s making art or discovering things in a science, any kind of creativity, involves this sort of going off the edge of the map, so to speak, a willingness to go someplace where you don’t know what the structure is going to be.
JPC That’s where the new information is found and it is always done with a willingness to reconsider the regular boundaries that we would normally operate within. And it’s the sense of play that enlivens what we do. Without it we would be going through the ropes by wrote.
OP If you are not willing to play a little, there are so many possibilities that you won’t see. Often something interesting will come up by accident. So even if you are just working in the studio a lot of things happen that you might not anticipate. I have heard so many of my colleagues use the same phrase in a lecture, “Luck favors the prepared mind.”