Don't know whether they're still around, but a few years ago Kodak erected little signs at hundreds of "scenic overlooks" around the country, helpfully suggesting to scenic overlookers the appropriate spot to capture their golden memories. Sneer if you wish, but the folks at Kodak were on to something; i.e., that it's not easy to take a decent photograph.
Looking through the thousands of photographs that my family has produced, I was struck by one thing: they're all pretty bad. Photography may be the most democratic and most ubiquitous of arts, but it's also extraordinarily difficult to do well.
How do you get there? Start with technical mastery -- absolute familiarity
with your equipment, mastery of darkroom technique. Add a telling eye -- the ability to see the world as if it had been created yesterday. Finally, have a deep, empathetic connection with your subjects and your viewers.
Combine all three and you get Andrea Modica, a transplanted New Yorker who now lives in Manitou Springs. Modica's work -- intense, particular, seductive -- is the subject of an exhibition at the Fine Arts Center, opening tomorrow and up through Sept. 8.
By profession, Modica's a commercial photographer whose images have appeared in many national publications, most recently on the May 5th cover of the New York Times Magazine. Some of her fine-art photography reflects the arid conventions of that world -- disorienting composition, deliberately jarring vignettes -- but much does not.
Modica uses an 8-by-10 view camera, and makes platinum palladium contact prints from her negatives. Such equipment is not in common use today, although it would have been perfectly familiar to William Henry Jackson or maybe even to Timothy O'Sullivan. The look and feel of the images thereby produced is very different from, say, a 35mm print. They have a calm, reflective quality, removed from present time, closer to Edward Curtis or Julia Margaret Cameron than to Laura Gilpin or Imogen Cunningham.
Look, for example, at a series of photographs of skulls excavated from an old cemetery near the state mental hospital in Pueblo. These are transcendent images, as moving and beautiful as a fine landscape by Ansel Adams or Eliot Porter. At the same time, they are perfectly documentary: this is a skull and this is what it looks like.
Most of us have never seen, and will never see, a freshly disinterred human skull; this is terra incognita. Modica illuminates it, just as O'Sullivan illuminated the American West when he accompanied the Wheeler Survey in the 1870s. Compare Modica's skulls with O'Sullivan's iconic image "Black Canyon of the Colorado" -- an undiscovered land, seen for the first time, vivid and still.
Modica -- "half in love with easeful death" -- is intensely interested in the
regions where life and death meet. Consider "Fountain, Colorado, 2000,"
picturing a dead starling observed by a child, or "Oneonta, New York, 1988," picturing a horse's skeleton on the forest floor while a living horse grazes quietly a few yards away.
More disturbing are her images of a family-run slaughterhouse in Fountain -- one showing children playing with the severed head of a pig, and another of a piglet's bloated body next to a smear of blood.
Yet Modica is not exclusively concerned with the boundaries between the quick and the dead. Many of her photographs are of and about children, about that secret, nameless world that we have all discovered, lived in and irretrievably lost. In Modica's work, children inhabit a world at the unseen margins of life -- constructions sites, weedy vacant lots, unmowed lawns. Her photographs make that world palpable, yet still remote; we can no more participate in these secret rituals than we can join Timothy O'Sullivan on the Colorado.
Modica's work is very close to greatness; her image of a hollow skull has the magical quality of Gazette photographer Bob Jackson's shot of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald -- clear, strange and completely normal.