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A few weeks ago, while a friend and I were driving to Rockland, Maine, where I was scheduled to give a lecture, we stopped in Portland, because I wanted to see the exhibition Rose Marasco: index at the Portland Museum of Art (April 24–December 6, 2015). While the museum billed Marasco as “perhaps Maine’s most prolific photographer,” what piqued my curiosity was the image the museum had on its website. In what was clearly a setup photograph, “Projections No. 5” (2007), the view is of one side of a white room with a fireplace, bookcase and table with a light box on it, presumably where Marasco lives and works. Projected onto the two walls forming one corner of the room is a black-and-white montage of different sections of a young woman’s face. There was something eerie about the setup, which caught my attention. By the time I read this part of the press release I was hooked:
Throughout her career, Marasco has remained uninterested in genres such as documentary, landscape, and portraiture. Instead, she has consistently mined concepts of framing, point of view, and orientation to make images with a complex relationship to the everyday image of the world.
Organized by Jessica May, this large survey exhibition begins with black-and-white photographs Marasco took in the early 1970s in Utica, New York, where she was born and raised, and culminates with “Scape, No. 1” (2014–15), which consists of two images she has juxtaposed one above the other. The topmost photograph is taken from inside one end of a long, empty building, facing an open doorway overlooking a tree, fence and field.
The building has become a kind of camera. The photograph below it is an overhead close-up of different lengths of string, arranged by Marasco to form a linear structure that falls somewhere between ideogram and musical score. While each photograph is interesting, together they become something mysterious. Moreover, the pairing feels discovered rather than arbitrary, though I cannot say why I feel this.
Over the period of roughly forty-five years covered in the exhibition, Marasco has explored the possibilities of the straightforward document and the setup or invented photograph, the factual and the fictive, often dissolving the boundaries between the two. Within these seemingly incommensurable choices, Marasco has taken photographs of grange halls; trees in urban settings; rooms with images projected onto the walls. She has made montages of the same scene, photographed at different times; she has used a range of equipment, from a pinhole camera to a 4 x 5-inch view camera; and she has employed the negative space of a cut-out figure as a framing device, a kind of reverse silhouette, to isolate part of an image.
In her series, Domestic Objects, Marasco photographs of pages from 19th century women’s diaries. In another series she photographs photographs of vacationing gay couples from early in the 20th century. In both groups she incorporated objects, as diverse as an egg to popcorn into the setup. By surrounding the photos or diaries with incongruous items, which she then photographs, Marasco turns them into homages that recall the work of Joseph Cornell.
The results can be eccentric, tender and touching. No matter how sympathetic you might feel toward these individuals, Marasco registers that they are lost to us, swallowed up by history and time. We can never know them, their personalities; all we know is what they have ceded to us, a written record of mundane activities or a sweetly innocent portrait of two young men sitting next to each other in the doorway of a clapboard house, feeling safe from the disapproving and even hostile society in which they lived. Marasco is neither nostalgic nor didactic. Rather, one senses her curiosity and empathy.
Works such as these suggest that Marasco is interested in bringing largely invisible histories into the light. Sympathy seems to be one of her primary motivations, but that is not all that possesses her. She is curious, restless, and open to trying out new and challenging possibilities. The angles and points of view Marasco chooses in her photographs breathe new life into her subjects. At times, I felt like a flaneur, or a scribe preserving a story, or detective collecting evidence. Formally speaking, her exploration of varying viewpoints and angles has moved her decisively away from the frontal images we associate with so much modernist photography.
In “Orchard Street near Delancey Street, May 13, 2013,” Marasco used a pinhole camera situated near the street to photograph a row of red and gray suitcases, back to front, extending from the sidewalk, which is in shadow, to the bright, deserted street. A cluster of other traveling cases sit in the middle of street. There is something uncanny about the image, a sense of desolation and the feeling of being thwarted. Of course, one can explain why the suitcases are there, but that is not the point. Marasco might point the camera at something, but she is not being literal or theatrical. Something else has caught her attention, and that I think is one of her strengths. She is able to make a memorable image out of commonplace things. The street toward buildings in the distance, suggesting that there is nowhere to go, that one is bounded by one’s circumstances, whatever they are. The desire to travel, to be elsewhere, comes across as a forlorn wish.
The catalog accompanying the exhibition includes a conversation between Jessica May and Marasco, which is quite informative. I found two other catalogs of the artist’s work in the museum bookstore, each focused on a particular body of work. It seems to me that Marasco deserves both a full-sized monograph and to be better known. She is more than Maine’s most prolific photographer.
Rose Marasco: index continues at the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Street, Portland, Maine) through December 6.