WINCHESTER — The three shows currently up at the Griffin Museum of Photography through Dec. 2 all deal with the natural world, but in ways so different each could be on a different planet. Each planets justifies a visit.
R.J. Kern’s “The Unchosen Ones” shows a domesticated nature, one that humans and animals symbiotically share. It consists of 31 large color photographs taken at Minnesota county fairs. In front of a dark-gray background, Kern poses young people with a farm animal or two that he or she had entered into livestock competitions at the fairs. The animals are sheep or goats. None of the contestants won, hence the title: They weren’t chosen.
So the title is descriptive. It’s also ironic. Looking at what is clearly an emotional relationship between the creatures, one recognizes a different kind of choosing, of each other. Maybe accepting would be a better word. It’s telling that Kern’s captions usually give the animal’s name as well as the young person’s. There’s a mutuality here, maybe even a duality. This makes for a surpassing sweetness (not sentimentality) and seeming simplicity. Why seeming? There’s an unmistakable, if not clearly articulated, sense of fellow feeling. That fellow feeling finds an ideal counterpart in the combination of respect and curiosity that Kern brings to bear on it.
Traer Scott’s “Natural History” shows nature as exhibition: posterior to life, and interior in location. The nine color photographs are “born of random timing and fractured light,” as she nicely puts it. Scott captures the reflections of visitors in the plate glass of dioramas in natural history museums. The images are obvious, even overt, yet still mysterious (a neat trick to pull off visually). A tiger seems about to pounce on a small child, whose back is turned to the predator. A bison appears to be snuggling up to another child. “Oh, yeah, I get it,” a viewer might think, but not for long. “Hmm, wait, maybe I don’t?” We see how real and unreal, animal and human, seeing and believing have the capacity to unite as well as divide.
The results can be affecting and often spooky. “During the summer of my ninth and tenth years,” Scott writes, “my mother, in lieu of hiring a babysitter, kept me captive in our hometown Natural History Museum all day, every day.” Even Sundays? Possibly so, since there’s a devotional, even religioso, quality to these nine color photographs.
Kate Breakey’s “Las Sombras/The Shadow” shows a nature that’s also posterior to life, but one unpreserved by taxidermy. The only preservation these birds and rodents and snakes now know Breakey’s camera provides.
Breakey’s is a desert planet, and the creatures (and bits of vegetation) she gathers for her work are from an arid climate. She makes photograms: putting a lizard or leaf on photographic paper, then exposing it to light. She then puts the resulting image in an old, often oddly shaped frame. This gives the work a vaguely Victorian air, emphasizing a sense of temporal distance: a past in which these natural things were once alive.
Roland Barthes, in his “Camera Lucida,” declared that all photography is essentially about death. That is, by showing a specific person or persons in a specific moment in the past, the photograph offers an implicit reminder of the passage of time and what that passage inevitably results in. Breakey turns Barthes inside out. Showing that inevitable result, she reminds us of the existence that preceded it.
R.J. KERN: The Unchosen Ones
TRAER SCOTT: Natural History
KATE BREAKEY: Las Sombras/The Shadows
At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through Dec. 2. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.