Photographs That Write With Light

Rose Marasco, from My Art Show: Discarded Art Work from Closet, Finland (2017-2019), 20 x 24 in. (full view), 10 x 12 in. (pieces on canvas), archival inkjet print (all images courtesy of the artist)

PORTLAND, Maine — Around five years ago, I was on my way to Rockland, Maine, to give a lecture and decided to stop in Portland to visit the Portland Museum of Art. I was motivated to go after seeing on the museum’s website a staged photograph in which a black-and-white montage of different sections of a young woman’s face had been projected onto the adjacent walls of a white room with a fireplace, bookcase, and table with a light box on it. The museum’s press release deepened my curiosity:

Throughout her career, [Rose] 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.

Here was a photographer who made staged photographs, and seemed to have no specific style. You could say that Rose Marasco was doing everything that John Szarkowski, who was the longtime director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1962–1991) and an early champion of Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, and Gary Winogrand, would have likely ignored. I was not going to miss it.

Rose Marasco, My Art Show: Discarded Art Work from Closet, Finland (2017-2019), installation view, 20 x 24 in. (full view), 10 x 12 in. (pieces on canvas), archival inkjet prints

I was not disappointed and I ended up reviewing Rose Marasco: index. Shortly afterward we met briefly and began an email correspondence. Recently, when the curator and artist Dan Mills invited me to Bates College to be on a panel about the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925–1972), whose work also fell outside Szarkowski’s aesthetic, I got in touch with Rose and we planned to meet in downtown Portland, where she has lived for many years.

Having seen her projections and montage, I wondered what she had been up to since I visited her exhibition. After I got back to New York, I began looking through my catalogues of her work and realized I had missed an obvious connection — she consciously deconstructs the word “photography” in her montages and photos of diaries.

Literally, the word photography is derived from the joining of two words, the Greek photos (light) and graphe (drawing). Hercules Florence (1804-1879), a French painter and inventor living in Brazil, used the word “photographie” in his diary in 1833, a few years before the English scientist Sir John Hershel used the English word “photography” in his now-famous 1839 description, “picture obtained by photography.” Florence and Hershel meant an image obtained by writing with light, but the word “photography” could be analyzed differently; its meaning was not, as they say, fixed in stone.

Rose Marasco, from My Art Show: Discarded Art Work from Closet, Finland (2017-2019), 20 x 24 in. (full view), 10 x 12 in. (pieces on canvas), archival inkjet print

In her series Domestic Objects Marasco made tableaux containing pages from a woman’s diary and a familiar object. In “Egg Diary” (1994), the diary is open to Friday-Saturday, January 14 and 15, 1921. Above the open pages, we see a brown egg. On the right page, near the middle, we read, “Dorothy Clark came to buy one egg.” I was interested in the photographs in Domestic Objects for many reasons, including what light they shed on women’s lives in early 20th-century rural America. What did not occur to me initially was that the photograph was generated by the diary page and the word “egg.”

When I first wrote about Marasco’s work I had not paid much attention to her keen interest in the relationship between the image and writing. However, the juxtaposition or overlay of word and image is an ongoing concern that she keeps exploring in different bodies of work and in new ways.

Rose Marasco, “Mimic No. 6 (from a series of 7)” (2019), archival inkjet print, 12 x 23 in.

Marasco lives in a Greek Revival house built in 1837 by Abel Grover. She bought the house at auction in 2003 and has completely restored it, as well as researched its history and former occupants. As she talked about the house when I visited, and the various objects (82 in all) that she found while renovating it, she showed me various rooms and works. I learned that she is currently working on a project, Keeping House, that combines photography and prose and pertains to where she lives. On her website, she describes:

It is a bit of a memoir, a peek into the history of the house and the former occupants, several portfolios of my photographs, my text passages about some of the objects, and my thoughts about photography (invented the same time the house was built), its history, significance, and the cultural changes around it in our daily lives.

Time and history are Marasco’s recurring subjects. In “Photomontage” (1981-82), a highway sign that reads “One Hour Parking” divides the horizontal format into two unequal areas. The parking sign belongs with the roadway on the left, while on the right is a divided highway that curves at the same angle as the roadway. Made from two of her photographs, which she has cut and carefully fit together along the seam provided by the traffic sign, Marasco photographs the montage, making it into a new, physically seamless artwork. In this and related works, the viewer can sense the inevitability of change and the passing of time: a road becomes a multi-lane highway. Different views of a building’s facade echo recollections in the mind’s eye. How do we remember what we remember?

Rose Marasco, “Mimic No. 4 (from a series of 7)” (2019), archival inkjet print, 12 x 23 in.

Over the course of the afternoon, Marasco showed me work from three series, My Art Show, The Easel, and Mimics. It seems to me that she often uses what is at hand — artworks left in a closet by an unknown maker, which she affixes to the backs of small, store-bought canvases; projections on the wall behind an easel and a broom that she found while at a residency; black and white photographs of the Maine landscape paired with identical “drawings” made from things (hairpins, clothes pins, and pottery shards) that she found in her house.

There is something sharp and touching about the work in My Art Show, which was made at the Arteles Artist Residency in Finland, about two hours north of Helsinki. As in her photographs of women’s diaries, she let the circumstances define her project, which in this case meant using what she found at the residency for her various projects. In an email about the photographs in My Art Show, she told me, “There was a big closet [at Arteles] with a lot of leftover stuff and materials we could have and some artwork that others left behind.”

In a number of her photographs, she has affixed the artworks, mostly done on paper, to the backs of pre-made canvases, and mounted them on the closet doors where she presumably found them. She has projected the black and white image of a woodcut of a snow-covered field, with a bare birch tree in the left foreground, in one photograph. The image, from a found artwork, adds an unexpected element that invites interpretation.

Rose Marasco, from My Art Show: Discarded Art Work from Closet, Finland (2017-2019), 20 x 24 in. (full view), 10 x 12 in. (pieces on canvas), archival inkjet print

The artworks include pencil drawings, patterns done in liquid mediums, such as ink, and another group made with spray paint. I was reminded of Richard Tuttle’s watercolors, especially ones that include a pattern. Marasco’s framing shifts the way we look at them; something that was abandoned becomes a work of art memorialized by the photograph. 

In another body of work, The Mimics, which will be featured in her book, Keeping House, Marasco took photographs of the Maine landscape with her Rolleiflex, something that she had not done since the 1980s. She was inspired to do this by a trip to Japan, where she photographed the landscape. She juxtaposed the Maine landscapes with another photograph. The second photograph, in which she made a “drawing” using things she found in her house, echoes the linear elements and contours of the first photograph. The “drawing” becomes an abstract ideogram of the landscape. The works bring together photo (particles of light) and graph (lines of writing). The juxtaposition opens a speculative space, where history, anonymity, language, preservation, loss, and the passage of time are collapsed into a symbol to be deciphered and contemplated — with traces of tenderness, pain, and beauty to be found everywhere we look.

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