‘From Dante to Tolkien, each of us has vivid images in our minds of that fiery place where sinners reside for eternity. In this exhibit, I try to evoke visions of that underworld, so you can experience whatever related thoughts might come to mind while viewing them.” This provocative statement comes from Larry Parsons, a photographer and member of Gallery 14 in Hopewell.
In his exhibit that goes on view there on Saturday, April 23, Parsons uses his camera to explore abstractions and manipulations of imagery to evoke the subconscious. Rounding out the work in the exhibit are poems by his friend Carlos Hernandez-Pena. “When he first looked at the photos, he was reminded of ancient Aztec and Mayan myths and their versions of Hell. The poems are not related to any one image, but rather to the experience of the exhibit as a whole,” Parsons says.
Parson has had a life-long love of photography. He was introduced to photography at an early age. “My grandmother, who lived in Richmond, Virginia, gave me a Brownie camera when I was about 10 years old. I photographed the statues on Monument Avenue. I was very dissatisfied with the results. That’s when I figured out there was more to it than pushing the shutter button. My father loved photography, but I think he was more interested in the technical side than the art of it. He had a very elaborate darkroom, but turned out quite ordinary images. That’s when I decided I needed to take courses relating composition and other art aspects of the medium.”
Parsons grew up in Lumberton, North Carolina, and graduated from Wake Forest University. He served in the army during the Vietnam era, and after his discharge he took a job with a textile firm and moved to the Princeton area. After a few years he began working in the finance industry, eventually becoming a stockbroker and branch manager for AG Edwards, now Wells Fargo. He retired in 2010. “Then I really got to do photography” he says.
In the early 1970s his wife gave him a camera and a photography class held at Princeton Day School. He loved doing darkroom work and built his own darkroom soon after using the one at the school for a number of years.
He found the transition from film to digital fairly easy. “There were tremendous similarities between the digital camera and the film camera. And the manufacturers were smart enough to make them look/act like each other. Of course the fundamentals and the physics of light are pretty much the same whichever one you use.” At present he shoots with a Nikon D300s, hoping that he will find a camera with a larger sensor that is light enough for him to carry comfortably.
Parsons’ involvement in Gallery 14 began in 2009. He was invited to be a guest exhibitor and shortly afterwards was invited to join the group.
His work is varied and diverse. A tour of his website shows an interest in several different themes. “I tend to go off in a couple of different directions. There is a bit of a theme in that I tend to start off with somebody else’s work and move it in another direction.” He mentions a series based on the work of Sol LeWitt, an artist who came to fame in the late 1960s with his wall drawings and structures but was prolific in a wide range of media including drawing, printmaking, photography, and painting. Parson acknowledges that “it doesn’t look anything like his work — except the colors.”
His series on the Greek Urnist Wrestlers arose out of a workshop the photography club held with several models. His idea was to mimic what you would see on a Greek urn. Out of that series came the “round Rodin” in which Parsons hired one of the models from the photography club shoot to pose as the famous sculpture. His other work reflects his travels to Europe, Africa, Turkey, and the Southwest.
The work for his Gallery 14 exhibition is based partly on an inspirational moment with his grandson. For the past five years Parsons and his wife have kept a tradition of taking him away during his break from school. While watching a DVD with his grandson on one of their outings, Parsons noticed he had left his camera on, and it was still on sitting the table. He began playing with the camera and noticed that at a very slow shutter speed he could capture some highly distorted images. He shot several images from the DVD, a dark and moody animated feature.
The work sat for several months until last fall when — thinking about the work — he bumped into Hernandez-Pena, an acquaintance of his at the gym. Parsons asked, knowing that he was a poet, if he had any poetry that would go with these particular pictures. The poet took the images and came back a later saying “No, but I would like to write it.” After Hernandez-Pena came back with some poetry, Parsons realized he didn’t have enough images for a show. So he rented the DVD again and shot another 300 frames.
The collaboration has yielded about 25 photographs by Parsons and six poems by Hernandez-Pena. Which, Parson says, “make (the exhibition) tie together from the standpoint that he’s doing a narrative of someone who is walking through hell, but it all relates to the whole body of work — of images but not specific images.”
Hernandez-Pena grew up in Mexico but has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. In 2005 he launched “Voices” at the Princeton public library, a biannual program of poetry from around the world presented in a bilingual format. He has served as a co-editor of the US1 Worksheets magazine and is working on a collection of short stories in Spanish.
The two can not recall when or how they met but have been friends for more that 30 years.
Parsons reflects on the partnership, saying “this is just one series, one show. I like this idea, and I like this collaboration. I would like to do some more of this kind of thing, but I don’t have a definite idea or plan. But with that seed in my head it will germinate. I tend to get ideas and mull them over for a long time, and then they begin to work.” Most often he has an idea when he goes out to shoot.
Parsons has lived in Princeton with his wife Joan, a private piano teacher, for more than 45 years. They have a married daughter in NYC. She is a media strategist at Outcast, a public relations agency. Their married son lives in Denver. He supervises the subscription Cable TV Channel for Gaiam, the yoga company.
Looking back at his influences Parsons mentions his father, a doctor with an obstetrics practice. He was also an amateur photographer. “He encouraged me to do it by giving my first SLR camera,” he says. Then he mentions American photography master Ansel Adams.
But the one person Parson says who influenced and helped him the most was Princeton-based photographer and instructor Ricardo Barros (see U.S. 1, December 11, 2013). “I took workshops with him for about four years. He doesn’t let you stand still and he won’t let you work in your comfort level. He kept encouraging me and challenging me to do more and more and more.” As for what he wants the audience to take away from his work, he says, “I don’t want people to be told what to think.”
Underworld, Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Sunday, April 23, through Sunday, May 22, open Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Opening reception Friday, April 29, 6 to 9 p.m., with actor Christopher Coucill reading the poems. Meet the photographer Sunday, May 1, 1 to 3 p.m. Free. 609-333-8511 or www.photogallery14.com.