A teaser. A spoiler. My commentary on Altadena-based photographer Laura Parker’s enchanting image of a bird will contain EXACTLY one thousand words. This is not an exhibition review, it is about a single work. This is not directed to artists and art professionals who gravitate to academic journals; I direct it to you, an informed but more casual reader.
Two of history’s great geniuses concur that establishing a written document as a worthy partner to the visual object it chronicles. And so I quote: “One picture is worth a thousand words.” Confucius: “Hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once.” Leonardo Da Vinci seconds that emotion, having written, “A poet would be overcome by sleep and hunger before (being able to) describe with words what a painter is able to (depict) in an instant.” I take the two sages' challenge seriously, I am ready to come out scribbling.
The guiding aphorism made its first entrance in 1911, when, during a Syracuse (NY) Advertising Men's Club banquet held to discuss how to augment publicity in journalism and advertising, a guest speaker invoked editor Tess Flanders to implore the writers and editors in the audience to, "Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words.” In a 1921 article in “Printers’ Ink,” a trade journal, Fred R. Barnard further popularized the phrase in his writings about the use of images in advertising.
“Worth” implies an equivalency in terms of aesthetic value. But it weighs in way lopsided as far as the labor necessary to produce it. For writers to establish their reviews as the emotional and intellectual mirrors of the works about which they write, producing a thousand words is a lot of work! But, hey, in the Corvid-19 era what else do we have to do?
While not a painting, Laura Parker’s photograph of what looks like an ordinary finch sits framed inside of a circular splash of white light that is itself balanced on a rope-like wire in a kind of telescopic tableau that, suspended, overlooks a foggy and impressionistically rendered image of the sea. A smaller cobalt blue sphere or large dot hovers diagonally over the bird’s head almost centered in the upper quarter portion of a pitch-black backdrop. It feels like a permanently receding and ever-present, terrifyingly deep universe. So in setting up this little game of a thousand words for myself, perhaps I am merely diverting myself from conventional questions about the ethics of discussing works within one’s own collection.
Parker is a magician with the lens, a techno-wizard in developing her photographs, whether in the dark room or at the computer. Her work never fails to cajole the eye into playfulness. It confounds the brain with “good confusion.” It asks of us to trust in something greater than dull certainty and more formidable than avowed fact. In so doing it echoes Hebrews 11:1-3, where faith is defined as “the substance of things hoped for/the evidence of things not seen.”
For example, in another one of her photographs we wonder, “Is that bronze ball an image of the sun?” No, it’s the glowing burnt base of her comfortable old bronze tea kettle. In another we see … the moon? Fuggedaboutit. What we’re actually seeing is a cropped close-up of the bottom of an ordinary Styrofoam cup. Parker’s bird photo takes a decisively lyrical turn apropos of the Minimalist poet’s cap she quite comfortably and frequently dons. It eschews her somewhat signature sleight-of-eye way of working, because looking at it we instantly know this image of a bird is, well, an image of a bird.
But what does she have the little fella sitting on? A wire. Really? A wire that just happens to have quivered its way from nowhere and suspended itself from nothing a hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean?
The wire, which upon close examination looks like a very thin and tightly braided rope, bends and points dreamlike up and diagonally toward the left center of the composition and smack dab into the middle of the visual quotation of that John Baldesarri-like blue “dot.” However, rather than displacing a human face, as such colorful dots often do in the late master’s photo-montages, Parker’s adds a bubble of imagination to a narrative that the bird itself seems to have thought up. In other words (but who’s counting?) the dot forms a rotational joint over which the rest of the work rises and dances like an exuberant exclamation mark.
Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West” begins, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” We the reader, along with the poet, hit the pause button on our daily/minute-by-minute distractions to observe a woman walking along a Florida beach in order to to listen to her song. Parker’s camera, in this instance, offers similarly seductive music. Stevens’ poem goes on to read that this woman “was the single artificer of the world/In which she sang,” before concluding “that there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made …”
The poem makes me wonder just whose world is it that I’m writing about as I’m looking at this photograph? Is it Laura Parker’s world? The virtual world of felt space that, to borrow Clive Bell’s phrase “Significant Form,” her image has tantalized into being? Or is it my world as I’ve constructed it at this very moment and in this very act of writing? In the midst of the pandemic, cornered in my house, for which I’m nevertheless eternally grateful and blessed to occupy, I wonder whether the act of creating, be it a poem, a photograph, a painting, the playing of music or the writing about all of the above may allow for the opening of optimism to be breathed into us once again?
And so I give you one thousand words. But the truth is, a picture is not worth a thousand words after all. It is worth a whole lot more. It is worth everything.