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Photo Compositions That Send a Powerful Message

By Alyssa Coppelman

In the photo-based art of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, a magical world sends warnings about the future. For more than two decades, the ParkeHarrisons’ work has been informed by their desire to motivate viewers to move against the environmental disaster we are barreling toward.

Shana ParkeHarrison says that the couple’s most recent series, Precipice, “combines aspects from almost every previous series we have created since the early 1990s. The common conceptual thread in our work is our fascination with the triangular relationship of humans, technology, and nature.”

“Each series investigates something a little different,” she continues. “But overall, we like making scenes that raise questions about our use and abuse of the earth. We balance serious topics with images that show possibilities for change. We focus on human ingenuity as a potential answer to the problems we, as a civilization, have created. More than anything, we strive to create art that engages viewers on a visceral and lasting level.”

Precipice © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

Precipice © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

The artist couple met while students in New Mexico. Robert was a photography student and Shana studied dance and metal smithing. Since they’ve joined forces, their creative output has been innovative, successful, and a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. “We strive to make visual poetry,” says Shana ParkeHarrison. “Our process allows us to combine references from a variety of interests, including ecology, politics, science, theater, film, dance, psychology, philosophy and religion.”

ANALOG AND DIGITAL PROCESSES

The ParkeHarrisons work together on every aspect of a project, making and photographing all the elements in each image. They begin by extensively researching concepts, trading ideas back and forth, and making a lot of sketches. Once they’re ready to execute on an idea, they build sets and props, which often incorporate found objects. They scout for the landscapes where their scenes will take place; all the images in Precipice combine sets and real landscapes. 

Sojourn © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

Sojourn © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

Riverview © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery
Downpour © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

Left: Riverview © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. Right: Downpour © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. Both images courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery.

After photographing the scenes, they use Adobe Photoshop to create digital composites that combine the newly photographed sets with scenes and images pulled from their massive library of past work. 

Some of the effects the ParkeHarrisons now achieve with Photoshop were previously realized by painting their photographs and other analog tricks. For Precipice, they purposefully challenged themselves to translate their prior workflow into a digital process.

Says Ms. ParkeHarrison,“We started using Photoshop around 2006, mostly just to combine scanned negatives into our composite images. From there we would finish the images by painting on them with many layers of paints, mediums, and varnish. This body of work represents the first time we have attempted to infuse the painting process within our digital process. We use layers and masks extensively to complete the images. This round we used layers as a way to stack images taken of paintings—think texture and single-color paintings. We then played with subtly erasing portions on each painted layer in order to achieve painterly effects.”

“For us, continuity is key,” she explains. “Our images from 2015 must resonate with images we made in the darkroom in 1995. The question of how the images are made fades from the viewer’s thought process, allowing the person to focus on why we make these images.”

Soliloquy © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

Soliloquy © 2015 Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery

Precipice will be on view at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago from March 11 to April 30.