Each month an exclusive edition run of a photograph by an artist featured in Don't Take Pictures magazine is made available for sale. Each image is printed by the artist, signed, numbered in an edition no higher than five, and priced below $200.
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We are pleased to release October's print, Wallportrait Marianne from Bear Kirkpatrick. Read more about Kirkpatrick's work below.
Purchase this print and from our print sale page.
Hearing the Body, Witnessing Lives: Bear Kirkpatrick's Wallportraits
Bear Kirkpatrick lost his hearing when he was a child. It happened gradually, and he adapted to his increasingly silent world by reading lips and relying on his other senses to give meaning to the world around him. No one seemed to notice, so he was able to build his adaptations in silence until a concerned relative broached the subject with his parents, at which point he was ushered to a series of doctors and surgeries and, by the age of five, was granted his hearing back. He had been deaf for over a year, and one of the first mornings home after regaining his hearing, he cowered beneath his bed covers, screaming for help, as strange sounds filtered into his bedroom. The birds had risen with the sun, and their morning songs filled his room and his imagination, overwhelming and terrifying him. Too many sounds, too many possibilities.
Seeing Kirkpatrick’s series, Wallportraits, one gets the sense that Kirkpatrick is filtering out the extraneous noise in order to focus on an idea. We see a subject’s face in isolation, with the rest of the body—often even the hair—excised and blended into imagery of the backdrop. The isolation of the face from the body, however, does not mean the person is disembodied or lost. Instead, his or her presence seems highlighted, his or her identity focused and clarified. The patterns and imagery suggest that we are seeing a person’s story, or at least some important part of it, and are, in fact, witnessing a life rather than viewing a static portrait.
Kirkpatrick’s dedication to seeing and hearing the stories of his subjects animates Wallportraits. During his shoots, subjects share life experiences and tell their stories. While not all of them move toward disclosure, others relate intimate details about their lives, revealing inner struggles and ongoing challenges. These stories emerge in Kirkpatrick’s photographs, though largely as metaphors that are partly intentional and partly serendipitous. The backdrops, which bleed into the subjects, are chosen largely by instinct and intuition. That intuition is formed, in part, from his interaction with his subjects.
The emotional force of images like “Wallportrait Anna” derives from the contrast between the subject’s face, with her intent gaze and expressionless features, and the pattern of the background and shawl that isolates her face. The shadows that fall across both the fabric and her features provide depth not only to the image, but to her history. We sense in her commanding eyes an insistence on being seen within that history. Similarly, “Wallportrait Ashley” uses pattern and light to highlight the subject’s gaze. The looks of both subjects suggest melancholy, but not despair. They suggest a need to be heard, and, in spite of the fabrics that cover and protect their bodies, they suggest a need to be seen. Indeed, they insist on it. Kirkpatrick, reflecting on the photo shoots, suggests that when a model shares a story, he or she essentially “tells me about their lives and the water they swim in.” His hope for the photographs is more than personal, though; it borders on metaphysical: “I like to think that it can help me see the other waters they swam in before they were born.” From these distant waters he seeks to cull a meaningful photograph.
Kirkpatrick’s impulse to reach further into the self, to try to understand what creates a person and his or her story, is not New Age mumbo-jumbo. Instead, his vision delves beneath the surface even as the surface recedes inward. Each portrait shares this quality. For example, it is impossible to see “Wallportrait Marianne” and not wonder what story has shaped Marianne’s journey and what rising seas she has confronted. More recent images, such as “Wallportrait Nicole: After the Master of Saint Veronica” or “Wallportrait Shoney: The Fall of Man,” suggest even greater engagement with the subject and invite viewers to participate in an unfolding narrative. These newer photographs move away from fabrics and patterns, and instead use background images that crowd into and accrete onto the bodies of the subjects. The paintings are stories themselves that surround and grow on each subject’s body. These are not the stories hidden in the manner of the earlier images, with shawls keeping the body from view. They are instead stories hidden in plain sight, with the actual components of the body becoming visible only when we take the time to stop and meet the demanding stare of the subject.
The series as the whole does more than reveal the stories of the people Kirkpatrick has invited into his studio; it also capture’s some of his own story. By the time he was 11, Kirkpatrick had lived in seven different houses, and the ongoing shifting of place brought not just adventure, but displacement. His father, a Harvard geology grad and ROTC cadet, had just returned from Vietnam, but he kept his stories, including ones that led to a Bronze Star, locked in silence. He moved the family to New York City, working on Wall Street before drifting increasingly further out into the countryside. The family finally settled on 50 acres in New Hampshire, but not before Bear had internalized the drift and the silences.
At 18, Kirkpatrick experienced an emotional break, falling into despair and turning to art and story in order to regain his footing. He began to study various mystical and religious traditions, focusing on those that highlighted the power of narrative in making sense of the world. Shamanic traditions became important to him, as he found in them rituals that helped to give voice and meaning to his experiences. He read Freud and Jung and found them incredibly compelling. He moved toward creative expression, using writing as a means to name his own experience. Today he feels that visual arts give him the most nuanced means to access the unspoken. Having previously found success in sculpture and furniture-making, he now focuses his creative energies on photography.
The expressionless gaze of so many of his subjects in Wallportraits contrasts with the rich fabrics, art, and organic matter that isolate the face, but that isolation serves to highlight the story at the center of the image. The person—his or her experience, his or her life—demands the viewer’s attention, and the rich imagery, blended through careful crafting with digital technologies, is less of a backdrop and more of an insistence that more of their story can be revealed through careful layering and obscuring. More importantly, it suggests that despite our best attempts to blend in, to merge into our surroundings and be lost in the stories around us, our own gaze pulls us outward to meet another with the hope that we will be seen, heard, and loved. Without those gazes, and the art to bring them about, Bear insists, “I’d be a goner.”
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists. He currently resides in Long Island, New York, and is a professor at Stony Brook University