Barbara Parmet's studio, a large, vertically-oriented open room with several levels, climbs from the backyard of a classic bungalow on the east side of Santa Barbara towards the sun and the hills behind. Custom-built to accommodate her many faceted procedure as an artist, the space reflects the idiosyncratic, highly intuitive way that her work comes together. As I enter the space, there are two prints of a recent photographic image laid out on the floor. In one, an enigmatic reclining female figure, clothed in a retro-looking swim suite and rendered weightless underwater, is printed on a conventional sheet of paper. In the other, the same image appears on the surface of a fine-grained wood veneer board. This wood veneer surface represents Parmet's latest attempt to eliminate the distracting reflections and sense of distance created when a photograph is framed under glass. "It's the problem of the glass" she told me, "and the wood veneer is how I'm solving it this time." Looking around at the wide variety of materials -- paper, but also cloth, wood, and metal -- in her studio that bear the images she creates with her camera, Parmet adds, "I love solving problems with substrate."
Parmet, whose work has been shown at the Annenberg Center for Photography in Los Angeles and the Carpenter Center for Art at Harvard University, as well as galleries in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Paris, was not always an artist in this sense. She began taking pictures in college, and was inspired by a great teacher to go to graduate school in journalism and become a working photojournalist. Parmet was part of a generation that believed that, with the right images, they could change the world. In many ways, they did. "I got out of the school of Journalism at the University of Missouri during the Vietnam War, and some of my teachers there had been photojournalists covering the Civil Rights movement. In both those situations, you felt like the work had influenced history. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, for example, my mentor was Will Counts, who took the famous photos of Elizabeth Eckford, the young black teen who was one of the students to integrate Little Rock High School. They are considered among the most influential images of the 20th century." As she talks about those heady days for journalism, I look around and absorb the way that the newsroom's urgency still lingers in the workspace Parmet has created for her fine art. A desk with a computer sits at the top of the stairs, acting as a command post from which the entire space can be surveyed in a glance. On the room's longest wall hangs a giant figure composed of multiple tiles of cloth pieced together with safety pins. This big photo-assemblage exudes a mixture of mystery and sensuality, and has the presence of something much older, like an ancient tomb carving in stone that has somehow manifested again through photography, cloth, and composition.
During what we agreed to call "the long 60s," referring to the anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, and other protest movements of the 1970s, Parmet covered a lot of demonstrations. "I wrote, shot, and laid out my own stories," she said, "and I went wherever there was news." After a series of positions in such east coast cities as Baltimore, Parmet moved to Santa Barbara in 1978, when the city was still in its golden age of populist environmental activism. While working at the Santa Barbara News & Review, Parmet reported the protests that derailed the proposed Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) project at Point Conception in 1979. "We slept out there to cover that story" Parmet recalls, referring to the sacred Chumash land on which the proposed liquefaction facility was to have been built. The image of this outdoor vigil speaks to the crusading spirit with which she pursues her work today.
In an essay accompanying her 2012 show at Crista Dix's wall space gallery, Parmet wrote of her most recent work that "the figure is offering the viewer a glimpse into an extraordinary circumstance, each time measuring how far, how high, how long, and how amazing it is to be 'The Measure of All Things.'" The show's title comes from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras, who is best known for his declaration that "Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not." Together, these two quotes illuminate the connection between Parmet the photojournalist and Parmet the post-modern artist, as they each address the degree to which witnessing remains the fundamental constitutive human act, the ur-gesture that precedes all others, in which we make the world we live in by becoming aware of it.
The romantic figures in such recent Parmet images as "Leap," from 2012 appear both unmoored in history -- it's hard to tell what period these characters are from -- and relentlessly focused on a specific moment. In "Leap," a female figure in what appear to be 19th century clothes is depicted in mid air, and with no indication of where she might land. Her headgear may or may not cover her eyes, raising the question of whether or not this leap is blind. In this and other photos from the "Unveiled" series, such as the image of a woman in another long skirt conjuring ten white doves with a magician's top hat and wand, Parmet explores an analogy between being seen, as in a photo, and being set free from the conventional bonds of reality, such as gravity. When her figures enter the world of her images, they undergo a transformation that leaves them afloat, both as physical bodies and as floating signifiers, free to incorporate whatever associations the viewer may bring to them.
Nowhere is that strategy more apparent than in Parmet's latest work -- the image of the woman underwater described above. Here we see the contradiction between embodiment and weightlessness that Parmet is constantly restaging brought to a particularly acute crisis. Languorous without being soft or conventionally seductive, the figure, which we behold from an unusual oblique angle, another Parmet signature move, appears perfectly at rest, yet of course she is underwater, so this pose can't last; indeed it can't have lasted for more than a moment, as at some point the model would have to breathe. As in "Leap," the artist and the model collaborate to create an image that exists only for an instant, yet that requires hours of preparation to realize. It's like a continuation of the work rhythms of reporting, in which journalists endure hours of boredom and sleep deprivation in order to be on the scene for the action.
Parmet describes her process as that of a motion picture studio with one employee --herself. "I've always sewn, so I make the costumes, and I tend not to use assistants unless I absolutely have to, because that's not what I'm about. For me this work involves a very intense bond with the model, so I don't really want someone else there. It's because I'm looking for a moment with that person, and we have to find it together, so it's usually best if it's just us two." Apart from her solitary work pattern, Parmet's other artistic behavior is almost the opposite. She's a member of two active art groups, one of which is a book club of Santa Barbara curators and dealers, who somehow agreed to admit this lone artist, and the other is a small Los Angeles-based artist collective.
It's through the latter that Parmet has recently begun to work with university-trained critics, who like to describe her work in terms of feminism and post-structural critical theory. Parmet accepts such interest with simple gratitude, saying, "it pushes you. My favorite recent conversation was with a professor of critical theory who recommended that I write about what I am doing in those terms and then reminded me, 'but nothing too squishy!' I love that. I knew exactly what he meant by 'squishy,' and I feel the same way." When asked about the sources of her inspiration, and whether or not she fears that her ideas might dry up, Parmet replies with a smile, saying "I don't really worry about that, because I have 'aha' moments all day long. It's to the point where my husband laughs at me. I will come back into the house from the studio after a morning's work and he'll ask, 'so, did you have another huge breakthrough?'"
Top Image: Photo by Barbara Parmet.
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