BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With her haunting show, “Paradise Wavering,” now on at the Hyde Park Art Center, Alice Hargrave places herself at forefront of innovation and exploration in photography in Chicago. Probing not only the far reaches of the art but its history, her mesmerizing photographs beckon the viewer into each setting or moment they capture.
To Hilesh Patel, Deputy Director of the Hyde Park Art Center, Alice’s show is a summer highlight.
“Her work has a super interesting approach. It is both about nature, with vegetation dense or sparse, and also about memory, calling up moments in time. Each photo is an invitation to walk in and explore, to understand what it means to be somewhere else.”
She related recently, in the most moving and poetic way, this sense of time and place that informs her art:
“The cusp between lightness and darkness fascinates me. I love that time which is neither day nor night. The intensity of the almost-night sky underscores for me the passage of time. Dusk being so fleeting is analogous to the sense of loss we are constantly facing as we feel life racing by: the loss of the moment, a single day, a childhood, a person, or an entire lifetime. For me, there is a certain beauty in this capture that photographs attempt to reveal. There is the subsequent and inevitable loss characteristic to photography itself which makes it a perfect tool for probing the fugitive nature of childhood, youth, memory, and the changing landscape.”
The landscape of her childhood was a creative one. Alice’s mother, Ittie Wirtz, is legendary for her work in the decorative arts. It is a shared love of nature between the two that created the path to Alice’s current work and its verdant ferns and palms.
“My mother and I both share a keen interest in plants, and her work with shells – almost like “cabinets of curiosities” – are related to my use of natural materials. We are both aesthetes for sure.”
It was her grandmother, silent movie star Colleen Moore, who instilled in Alice the instinct to traverse the world around her. Moore’s legacy continues to inspire her life and work, long after the dazzling actress’s passing in 1988.
“Colleen’s films from the silent era make me acutely aware of the impermanent nature of all things photographic. Looking at them, you see a kind of sublime deterioration. In one of her most famous films, Flaming Youth, the film stock literally burns before your eyes, as most of the footage was destroyed in a studio fire. Colleen, my grandmother, travel companion, and confidant extraordinaire, continues to inspire me in many ways. We were both born in the year of the tiger, and we shared that tiger spirit. Traveling with Colleen was pure adventure. These were not vacation travels, but rather more intensive trips, focusing on learning about the vast world around us. ‘Paradise Wavering’ is also dedicated to the memory of my grandmother ‘whose imagination, wanderlust, and sensitivity to the peoples and places of the world’ so inspire me.”
Though Alice credits her grandmother as one of her greatest inspirations, past and present students at Columbia College might say the same about her. Alice has served as a professor there since 1994, and is a much-loved educator at the school.
But it is not only her time in the classroom, the Hyde Park show, keeping her busy. Next month, she will be in conversation with Allison Grant, Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Alice is no stranger to the MoCP: her work is represented in the museum’s permanent collection. [Her work has also been exhibited at the Smart Museum, the Tweed Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and Art Metz, France – Ed.]
This conversation, The Elusive Present, is a celebration of the artist and a book release and signing event for her monograph, Paradise Wavering, a companion piece to the works currently on display at the Hyde Park Art Center, published by Daylight Press. It was Grant she chose to pen the book’s introduction:
“Hargrave has spent the past five years traveling and photographing in prairies, mangrove swamps, tropical forests, and other exotic locales, as well as in urban forest preserves and other places she encounters close to home. She immerses herself in these landscapes, detaching from her ordinary life, using her camera and the sensuous terrain of the land as her guideposts. Her compelling touch on the experience of being lost in thought.”
Of this tome, Alice again emphasizes that sense of experience, thought, and reflection that is woven throughout her work:
“I love all aspects of the photographic process. I used to spend long hours in my darkroom in the days of analog, and I have been teaching digital photography and how to redefine digital printing so that it rivals all analog processes. I have been a professor at Columbia College for just over 20 years. I love the taking of photographs as a way of slowing down, immersing myself into subjects in the natural world. My work is about prolonging and savoring experience, about finding something rare and noticing. The book and the images are also about deep looking both inside and out. I want to get you lost in the imagery.”
With her ruminations on time, it should come as no surprise that Alice has an extensive collection of vintage photographs in her possession. Reworking old photography and re-photographing details out of these preexisting images has become part of her working process.
“I am interested in how certain flora and fauna were pictured at different periods of time. I like to look at the backgrounds of images rather than what I thought was the initial subject. I find certain clues exist beyond the subject, and this way, I can create new subjects or bring backgrounds to the foreground. By using photographs as source material, I can repurpose old imagery into new work and weave together different times and places, revisiting pictures after the fact. Kodacrome, with its warm and highly saturated color, is synonymous with the Great American Road Trip, and some of the imagery that I work with come from that genre of vernacular photography.”
Currently, Alice is continuing a series of abstract studio constructions, working with the curvilinear shaped stencils that were once part of the painting practice of her late husband, French artist Jean-Brice Wallon, along with other residual elements of his work in the studio they shared. She is also studying images of plant life at night and working with the many photographs she shot at the southern-most tip of Costa Rica, when she focused on biodiversity and the cloud forests there.
Alice’s approach to color – which one can only imagine will be highlighted in her images from the lush landscape of Costa Rica – is one of the most alluring and enigmatic aspects of her work.
“Photographic processes have their own time, and fade out with their own distinctive patinas. Each decade can have its own particular color cast: the aqua decade or the raw sienna decade. I think of these like paint colors. I love the way that certain substrates from the 1970s, like Polaroids, fade to that ochre yellow or green. The color shifts into sublime decay, and the image degradations that occur parallel how memory is filtered and changes over time: fugitive image, fugitive memory.
“I wonder: what is the color of memory? We often need photographs to trigger our memories. But do we remember the photograph more or the actual event? Certain memories we would not have were it not for the photograph.”
The Elusive Present: Conversation with Alice Hargrave and Book Release, featuring Allison Grant, will take place on July 14 from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell Avenue. For more information, call 773.324.5520 or visit: www.hydeparkart.org.