IMPRINT AS MIRROR
BY HOLLY GOLDSTEIN, PH.D
A dramatic mountain ridge juts forcefully into the viewers’ space. In Autobiogeography’s opening image, our eye enters the frame at the bottom right, where cracked earth forms a precarious path leading us outward along a steep precipice. Allison Barnes invites us on her journey; together we tiptoe across this knife’s edge trail, into the mountainous photograph and beyond. In Autobiogeography, Barnes seeks to understand herself by examining place. Her images take us on a voyage through deserts, swamps, riverbeds, forests, and prairies, constructing a metaphoric exploration of time, history, and memory through photography. Together we encounter sun-bleached animal bones, petroglyphs, and bison. Our feet crunch over thorny brambles, dry rock, and dead leaves. The rich variety of location and subject matter universalizes the process of discovery, and as we accompany Barnes on her travels through space and time, her self-exploration becomes our own.
We can learn about who we are by observing where we are. All landscapes bear traces of their human and natural history, and, like scars on our skin, marks on the land harbor stories of use. Wet Hands in Salt Deposits illustrates an eternal symbol of existence: handprints on a rock surface boldly proclaim, “I am here. I exist.” These handprints are both individual and universal: upon closer examination, they might reveal the whorls of unique fingerprints or lifelines on a specific person’s palm, yet seen from a distance they are placeless and timeless. Closely cropped to exclude evidence of a particular location, this photograph could have been created anywhere, and therefore evokes a nameless “everywhere.” Perhaps these handprints were made quickly and will disappear immediately; “wet hands” possibly refers to a fleeting record of the artist’s own playful self-expression after a dip in a nearby stream. The darkest, most central handprint appears fresh, while its companion at left is already fading. These quick records of the self resemble prehistoric rock art, connecting this individual maker to all of humanity and to a deeper human history.
Handprints, rock art, engravings and imprints reoccur throughout Autobiogeography. The image F. Gilmer Breckinridge Was Here, 1859 uses text to voice that enduring refrain, “I am here. I exist.” Mixing irony and humor with deadpan documentation, Barnes asserts that although this rocky outcropping lists the long-winded name of one early explorer, this site has been viewed by countless others, including the photographer and viewer. By comparison, the isolated handprints in Homestead, 1991 represent a family – they are small, medium, and large, and are all accompanied by the last initial “B.” Unlike the quickly drying wet handprints in Salt Deposits, these fleshy impressions in cement appear permanent. Even when the human occupants of this modest dwelling are gone or grown, their imprints will remain. In Raccoon Hands, boot-prints, animal tracks, and tire treads stamp into the earth. Here humans, animals, and vehicles travel on the same terrain in a similar direction. While their origin and destination are unimportant, the trace and memory of their journey is preserved photographically as dried impressions in thick, caked mud. All of these traces, imprints, and layered marks naturally serve as metaphors for photography itself, echoing the indexical recordings of camera and contact print.
A nuanced understanding of the photographic medium is essential for decoding Autobiogeography. Photographs record evidence of physically observed objects, creating a trace, imprint, or twin. Likewise, Autobiogeography preserves traces of the human and animal world as evidence of a past experience. A dead and charred Saguaro cactus, like a giant’s claw or pitchfork, emerges from the ground as a totem of time and misuse. A small sample of petrified wood offers confirmation that a barren mud plain was formerly a forest. While a lonely Fish In Iron Oxide Pool once swam in a Desert Sea, all we see today is an aquatic skeleton crackling in the mud. The cactus corpse, petrified wood, and fish bones are elegiac reminders of extinguished lives; they are evidence of the past sensitively preserved and observed in the present.
The photographic imprint, a two-dimensional double of a tangible object, acts as a mirror, inspiring self-reflection. When we see tracks and trails of a long-ago journey, we consider our own travels through place and time. Barnes’s photographs conflate ancient and recent history onto a single surface, acknowledging the urgent human need to record, assert creativity and confirm existence. Like a prehistoric rock artist, Barnes uses her photographs to claim, “I am here. I exist.”
Holly Goldstein is a Professor of Art History at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She teaches courses in the History of Photography and Modern and Contemporary Art. Her research focuses on landscape photography, cultural geography, and the visual culture of the Georgia Lowcountry. She received her AB from Princeton and her Ph.D. from Boston University.