“Imminent Domain” is an ironic play on words where, after considering it in conjunction with Dan Normark’s photography exhibit in the WSU Museum of Art, it puts to mind rather the phrase, “Impending doom.” Perhaps it was the two stories of displacement and Normark’s portrayal of present happiness before eventual loss generated by eminent domain that inspired this sentiment. He employs blatant contrast throughout the entire exhibit and with the provocative title “Imminent Domain,” it seems that to strictly estheticize or sentimentalize this exhibit is to ignore the message it is intended to portray. It seems that we must break away from beauty, tradition, and sentimentality when considering “The Garden” and the story of Los Desterrados, “The Uprooted.”
I began with “The Garden,” the color photographs and most recent documentations of families in the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank Urban Garden, and found myself admiring the simplicity of “Gonzalo Gomez gardening with his dog” and other picturesque scenes. Naively labeling them as quaint and nostalgic in the weird way that a Thomas Kinkade-worshipper might, I was enthralled by their bright colors and “simpler time” snap-shots. Moving around the room, I began to arrange ideas of what this community had been, as documented by Normark’s photographs, and started to feel ashamed for my audacious, well-fed American assumptions about their “happy lives.” Luckily, combating this sentiment was a stimulating contrast between the cement of the city and just across the street a green and glorious garden. Beyond the visual disparity in the photograph—grey versus green, cement versus life—Normark captures the irony of the situation, though interestingly this can only be fully recognized by acknowledging the title of the photograph, “View of the Gardens from the roof of the Food Bank.”
Contrast and paradox such as “View of the Gardens from the roof of the Food Bank” amalgamated these photographs, with the seemingly random assemblage of items (in one, an umbrella with baby elephants on it shading roses and a crucifix in front of a rusty fence) carrying so much more meaning than supposed by the casual viewer. “Max Iberra’s shelter interior” epitomized this assemblage and contrast: a crucifix, two clocks with different times on their faces, a bowl of exotic-looking fruit, and—most noticeably—what I deemed “hopeful eyes” on The Majestic poster from the 2001 film, were all arranged under a thin blue tarp roof. Perhaps it was the very strange presence of Jim Carrey on a movie poster among other equally vibrant items all under a tarp in the face of “impending doom” that made me want to purchase this photograph. Perhaps the idea of something strange and out of place and yet harmonious with its surroundings despite a hazy future is something we’d all like in our lives.
Like the items under the tarps, the shelters themselves depicted in several of the photographs are familiar but foreign. They may remind us of the whimsical forts of our childhoods and we imagine ourselves in them, assuming Jim Carrey’s eyes gazing into the distance on our own faces. At the same time, the significance of these tarps in the lives of the people of the garden, so different from our own, is meant to be recognized. We can’t regard them as happy and carefree as we see the shredding tarps, but we can’t believe them miserable when we see the grins carrying armfuls of corn husks. I think perhaps Normark wants us to know that the three hundred thirty families are proud of their garden, where they’ve even proclaimed on a sign he photographed in front of the fence, “Our Garden provides: food, safety, park-open space, family activities, self reliance.” With this, “Scarecrow, battered but undefeated” was perhaps the most symbolic and pivotal photograph to this portion of the exhibit; the smiling scarecrow is the face of the people of the garden, and ingeniously Normark juxtaposes the scraggly scarecrow with thriving greenery, inhuman rust and always-perfect flowers, and most significantly, a shredded fading tarp in a growing garden. With this, Normark wants to celebrate, “[Not] the crisis but the gritty exoticism of the place, the sheer grace of people living among plants.”
Contrastingly, the “Chavez Ravine 1948” black-and-white photographs were of human culture and memory communicated through the scenes of people later narrating their daily lives. It’s ironic how from the comfort of the WSU Museum of Art it feels so primitive and yet it is right next to the Pasadena freeway with Los Angeles eating the skyline, another instance of contortion and contrast captured by Normark. I laughed when I saw what I believed the sort of climax to his black-and-white photography: a messy-haired boy rolling his eyes at the camera. This photograph sums up the situation in Chavez Ravine; the superficial enjoyments of what we believe are happy, hard-working people candidly captured in a homey, “Tight-knit community” (words of a peer) are scorned by this annoyed boy. He found the exploitation or presumptions irrelevant, and this work implores us to maybe look a little closer at the photographs. Normark’s accompanying quote, “Everybody liked him but no one knew his name,” seems perfect in the wrong sort of way: all of the people of Chavez Ravine were nameless to the city who evicted them, so Normark names them to us by capturing the emotions of the daily life.
This recommends us to the eternal debate of art requiring explanation to assume the intended meaning. In this particular genre of art that’s been designated as photo journalism of a social commentary, it seems an explanation is necessary to transmit the details of the story of Los Desterrados of Chavez Ravine and the families in “The Garden.” The art can speak for itself on an aesthetic level—with us admiring the brilliant colors, stark contrasts between rusting fences and blooming gladiolas and nasturtiums, or smiles at the camera—but in order for it to entirely embody the intended meaning, one must read the commentary and plunge from innocent enjoyment of photography to perhaps a more insightful world where viewers are finding out about themselves and hopefully not just smiling at what seems to be a warm, fuzzy “simpler time” but having some empathy for fellow humans in the face of impending doom.
Major: Wildlife Ecology
Expected Graduation Date: May 2010
Hometown: Olympia, WA
I worried about this exhibit. I worried that maybe it would be mistakenly viewed through just sentimental eyes when so clearly something beyond pretty and "artistic" in the photographs was meant to be seen. I used this review as an opportunity to in a way allay these worries from where I am and with what I have.