The Single Image

Jane Doe- Torso Only (18-25), 2008, Stephen Chalmers

At first glance into a photograph in the series Dump Sites, a viewer is not going to retain much information or understand the range of significance that permeates these photographs. Specifically, in Jane Doe- Torso Only, without even the title, the image itself appears to be a snapshot of a mid-day American landscape with its blanketing, diffuse sunlight. There is a small, stagnant stream that draws the eye from one uninteresting side of the photograph to the other, reflecting a seemingly poorly constructed footbridge and one of the few trees to fill the landscape. It is evident that this area of the landscape is rarely inhabited–no children playing in the stream, not even footprints left on its shore. The clouds signify those of a typical Midwestern late summer; possibly a storm is about to adorn the landscape, but for now, it is almost as if you can smell the static humidity in the air and listen to the nothingness of the breeze passing by.

However, this is exactly the premise the photographer was looking to establish within this content-loaded image. Dump Sites is a series of photographs that explore the nature of the spectacle in areas where dead bodies have been found in America. Chalmers has been interested in the interrelated nature of criminology and photography throughout his work, but interestingly, he presents these works with the absence of spectacle and without much reference to the criminological nature embedded in their existence. Instead, he aims to make this work about a spiritual, subliminal experience for those affected through the use, or more so non-use of text (Chalmers). He sets up a very interesting experience by doing this that is very important to explore. Through the limited use of his text, Chalmers claims that the goal is to achieve the absence of spectacle. However, in creating images that require such interrogation and questioning, this seems to actually support and enhance the spectacle of death. Just by the sheer fact that these intimate photographs are hung in national galleries further proves that even long after these tragic events have passed, we as a people are still interested, intrigued, even fascinated by the taboos around death. While it seems that Chalmers wanted to produce a body of work that would hold a certain cult value for those personally affected by images of these landscapes, he quite literally hangs them on exhibition walls. While this body of work raises many interesting questions around that of the spectacle, the roots of photography being linked to criminology, the spiritual state of sublimity, and the artistic use of text, one really needs to wonder what his motivation was in producing such work. Did this really serve as a meditative outlet for those families affected by these tragedies? Do these families even know about Chalmers’ work? Did he make any effort to contact the families? Or is this yet another example of intriguing work without the presence of artistic integrity?

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