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Picture Puzzles 

Tammy Rae Carland's Franklin Center exhibit probes the untold stories in family snapshots

If only it were just a book of myths in which our names do not appear. But women have regularly been written out of history as well. Given such systemic erasure of women's experiences, Tammy Rae Carland's remark which gave her DUMA show its title is particularly apt: "I want to reinsert myself into history," she states, "a history from which I'm absent."

But reconstituting or inventing a history in which she plays a visible role requires Carland to be much more than an artist and a photographer. In her dual exhibits at DUMA and the John Hope Franklin center, she must become a storyteller, a documentarian, a subject and an actor as well.

Much has already been written about the "Keeping House" and "Lesbian Beds" series which make up the DUMA exhibition. "On Becoming, Bill and Katie 1964," at the Franklin Center, makes a good place to investigate Carland's re-working of personal history. The work was first exhibited at Ackland Art Museum in 1999.

The Bill and Katie of the title are Carland's father and mother, and the ostensible time of the photographs is one year before Carland was born. The ironic title prepares the viewer for what follows.

The two parents face each other from opposing walls in the Franklin gallery, in a series of untitled black and white photographs, four of each parent. They appear to be snapshots, and in each, their subject is placed against a specific background: a front stoop or a clothesline, a church, a bar or a restaurant.

At first it seems Carland has simply copied snapshots from her family album and printed them to a uniform 12-inch-by-12-inch size. "My photographs are copies," she writes, made by "looking at the original as if it were a performance and that this performance, or script, can be reinterpreted and re-performed much like a play."

Upon closer examination, we find Carland has accomplished this re-performance by finding settings appropriate to her family's history--and then using herself as the subject in each "snapshot."

Photographers including Duane Michals, Cindy Sherman, and the Starn twins have posed themselves under various fake or "real" identities, often using the camera to create extended series of portraits. Of contemporary photographers, only William Wegman (of Man Ray fame) comes to mind as having tackled directly the problem of personal/family identity in this manner.

By casting herself as both male and female, father and mother, Carland creates a fictive history that explores, among other issues, whether an "original" self exists separate from family history, or whether a person's destiny is determined by what Freud calls "the accidental circumstances of his parental constellation."

Carland's exhibit answers neither these questions nor questions of gender. It raises other significant questions as well.

The distance and separation implied in positioning the two subject on opposite walls is underscored by the placement of actual snapshots of each parent in the two furthermost corners. Beneath the mother's photograph the words "I am the only one that can tell this story" appear in red. Beneath the father's picture, we read "And I know nothing about it."

Above the words, Bill looks off camera, unsmiling and distant. Katie, seated in an arm chair, appears at ease. (Carland duplicates this pose and setting in one of her "snapshots," suggesting a bond between mother and daughter notably missing between father and daughter.)

The photographs and the accompanying text are evocative, not expository, implicit rather than explicit. The effect is enough to recall Michael Lesy's observation that a snapshot is often "a picture puzzle in which everything manifest is only a fraction of what is revealed."

While Carland has acknowledged her indebtedness to feminist and postmodern criticism, she cites documentary photography as having the strongest influence on her own work. Her grounding in the factual photograph is underscored in this exhibit, in two books displayed along with her photographs.

One is August Sander's Citizens of the 20th Century, an attempt to photograph people from every strata of German society between the two world wars. The Nazis destroyed 40,000 of Sander's negatives, effectively rendering the subjects invisible; excluded, therefore, from official Nazi history.

The other is a book of photographs from the Farm Security Administration, opened to a 1939 photograph captioned, "Child and Her Mother, FSA Rehabilitation Clients." Their names are not given. It's ironic that such photographs constitute a place where people can be written into history in one way, while written out of it in another. EndBlock

  • Tammy Rae Carland's Franklin Center exhibit probes the untold stories in family snapshot

More by Barbara McKenzie

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