Cemeteries exist not only as final resting places for the departed, but as plots of land set aside for the erection of tangible reminders of their lives. Since humankind first began signifying the spot where a body lies, grave markers have been the object of fascination as they invoke, if not memory, then an imaginative wonder at the lives represented by them.
Raleigh photographer Alison Overton understands this fascination. Using a Widelux F6 swing lens camera, Overton has taken panoramic images of figurative sculptures and bas-reliefs in American and British cemeteries for her current exhibition, Spiritual, on view at the Municipal Building in Raleigh at 222 W. Hargett St. The resulting series of 20 hand-tinted gelatin silver prints are striking and unsettling as photographs of stone representations of human form, tinted to impose living qualities on non-living objects. The panoramic lens renders the static sculptures dynamic by slightly warping their dimensions. Overton’s technique and the often confrontational nature of her compositions–characterized by a close-up perspective and exaggerated dimensions–not only “enhance the subjects’ otherworldly qualities,” as she writes in her artist statement, but serve to lend them new life.
Overton preserves the integrity of her compositions by cropping while shooting rather than while printing. This technique is important here because the unique ability of camera portraiture to reproduce a single instant that may capture the personality of a given subject is null in these images. The subjects are already frozen in time, and their postures and facial expressions have been rendered long ago by commissioned sculptors. In the photographs, the statues remain austere and beautiful, their expressions solemn and vulnerable, in pensiveness and wonder.
The particularly haunting image “Mummy and Me” features a child, eyes tinted blue and lips pink, standing naked and gazing at the viewer. The child’s expression communicates perfectly the inability of children to comprehend mortality, while the child’s mother fills the background, an ominous presence rather than a discernible identity, her face cropped off at the top of the frame. The mother neither looks at nor cradles her child. Over her shoulder, the silhouette of bare tree limbs lends a quality of starkness. Though they have been placed together as in life, the statues give the impression of being, in death, wholly and eternally alone.
In developing her images, Overton has left an obscure darkness within the frames of the photographs. The result is iconographic: The darkened edges contrast with the illuminated and colored images within, creating a haloed radiance and emphasizing the artist’s respect for her subject matter. Overton has successfully highlighted the work of these long-forgotten sculptors, leaving their work in its element without altering the original artists’ intentions.