Polly Chandler vignette
“When you’re using film you can’t necessarily see what you’ve made immediately,” Polly Chandler reminds me. The diminutive Austin photographic artist is in the middle of planning for a trip to Southern Illinois University, her alma mater. She’ll be offering a pair of photography classes as a visiting artist later that week. But right now she is clearing out her inbox, taking care of notes and emails before she’s away from her computer.
Polly does not own a laptop. It’s just one more digital device she can live without. But planning to be away from her workspace for weeks lends an urgency to her emails. She lets me know time is short and she has to get on a plane soon I can feel her stress through the computer screen.
For the moment, I've got her attention. She's describing how she lugs her Toyo view camera across the fields and and parking lots of a Texas that many people don't give a second look, much less take time to snap a shot. I’m in love with large format, 4x5 (film) photography, she says. “The format slows everything down. It’s a cumbersome process and I think that the level of difficulty adds to my interest in it as a ‘craft.' "
Polly plies her craft in the rapidly diminishing world of photographers who harness photons and focus them onto something other than a silicon chip. Her images trickle onto 4x5-inch sheets of emulsion-coated plastic where the photo-seared silver halides wait for chemical combustion in a darkroom. “I can, of course make a similar image using Photoshop, but I don’t get the same “high,” she writes. It's important to me that my decisions in my image making are done in the field, through the lens, in the camera and on film.”
Because she photographs with the all-but-extinct Polaroid Type 55 film, her images carry a distinct hallmark—the imperfect, black frame-like edging on three sides with the top edge revealing the connective mesh that binds Polaroid’s chemicals with the film. The edges form a rustic box that frames her ethereal visions—like an imperfect window opening up briefly to reveal a fleeting view of a moment caught somewhere other than the pinnacle of a story arc.
In one of Polly’s images, strands of a woman’s wavy, dark hair wisps across her eyes and lips. The image comes from a gallery of photos labeled “Emotional Narratives.”
The midday sun and a wave of light from a camera’s flash illuminate her skin; a skin-tight, black dress contains her figure; she closes her eyes to the wind, perhaps--or maybe she is simply absorbing the moment. We know her only from the chest up because she stands close to the camera.
Behind her, a white, three-peaked shade tent staked to an ocean of pavement casts a cooling pool of darkness. Another woman wearing a white, sleeveless dress--her back toward the camera--prepares to enter its shade. There's an uncomfortable distance between the two women. One wears black; the other: white. Do they share a commonality with this place so desolate and obscure? Do they know each other?
For much of her photographic career, Polly Chandler’s art has created questions rather than statements. The people inhabiting her black and white ghostly portraits impart placidity or ambivalence. Obvious expressions or apparent emotions are not on display. Vague, desolate environments house her subjects inside an unfinished story that only Polly fully comprehends. “My work documents the exploration of my own identity,” she says. By combining figures with backgrounds, costumes and props, I create works that are spiritual and allegorical.”
Polly demures from answering specific questions about her images. All of them lack titles. The viewer grasps for meaning. But the meaning, for Polly, does not derive so much from the image itself. She revels in the mastery of the craft. “There’s something very satisfying in creating an image from a medium that is difficult,” she says. “This camera; the bellows and the tilt, shift, rise/fall and swing movements allow me to express myself in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else.”
Photos appear courtesy of Polly Chandler.
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