Stilled Life

Lorie Novak's photos meld old family snapshots with contemporary landscapes.

Lorie Novak's childhood memories are literally imprinted on her landscape.

In "Halloween," a 1990 incorporated color coupler print on view at the Center for Creative Photography, a deep blue night sky envelops a wintry forest. Novak has cast artificial lights on the trees, enveloping them in seasonal orange and beige. More importantly, she's superimposed another reality upon this patch of nature. A picture of a little girl dressed as a red witch, magnified to gigantic size, is projected onto the spindly trees. Looming up next to her is a huge ghostly mom, disguised as perhaps a benevolent Frankenstein. A second child, even more shadowy than the other two figures, is to the right.

The place--and the photograph--are haunted by Novak's own childhood. The photographic phantoms, eerily occupying the present print, are snapshot survivors from Novak's girlhood some 40 years ago. For two decades, the photographer, now head of the photography department at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts, has put old pictures of herself and her family in new photographs. Literally juxtaposing past and present, she projects old pictures on trees, most often at night, and on the flat white walls of a spare modernist room.

The technique not only produces startling images--a young mom vacationing by the pool in the 1960s suddenly appearing on a 1980s wall ("My Mother," 1984)--it mirrors the way childhood memories break into adult life, sometimes in equally startling fashion. Novak's projections investigate the heartbreaking power of childhood photos, and their relationship not only to memory but to identity.

Her wonderful show, Lorie Novak: Photographs, 1983-2000, coming to an end April 29 after a two-month run, exhibits several dozen Novak works the center has recently acquired. The show is a cascade of resurrected souls: Novak's smiling young parents, her toddler self, giggling Brownies and awkward adolescents. All of them are granted unsettling new life in chemicals and paper in Novak's new work, color couple prints of surpassing beauty, vivid in color and breathtaking in detail, down to the branches in those Halloween woods or the grain of gravel on a road.

These still photos are accompanied by a compelling installation, Collected Visions, complete with computer wizardry by Jonathan Meyer and original music by Elizabeth Brown. Novak has been collecting old family pictures from anyone she can in the last decade, and getting the subjects to tell her the related family stories. She's worked this emotional material into a mesmerizing collage of moving pictures, a treasure trove of little girls in First Communion dresses, birthday cakes alight and kids puffed up with pride on first bikes. These snapshots dissolve into each other on two giant wall screens, and if the effect is sometimes a little too Ken Burns, it's nonetheless fascinating to hear the now grownup subjects try to make sense of these childhood relics.

Some puzzle over pictures that contradict their own memories. A fine black and white shows a young boy contentedly idling in the crook of his father's arm. In the voiceover, that now grown-up boy says in some bafflement: "This pictures me in a very loving position with my dad. I sure can't remember that," he adds, stressing the word "sure."

His doubt addresses the murky role family snapshots play in memory. Does the picture convince the doubting man that indeed there were times when his father felt love for him? Or is it just a pose for the camera? And does Novak truly remember being the little red witch on an October evening in 1959? Or does the photographic record supplant memory, supplying in its place a memory of a memory?

Anyone looking back on childhood pictures of herself marvels at what has become of that little person, captured in grayed blacks and whites or in fading chromachrome. Novak faces that mystery head-on in "Identities," a 1998 print. She's crumpled up copies of her school pictures from the elementary grades on into high school and strewn them onto a black nothingness, beneath the doting gaze of a picture of her youthful mother. The train of changing selves demonstrates the wonder of life: We're the same, and not the same, as all those childhood selves.

And anyone who has watched parents age knows the poignancy of looking at pictures of them when they're young, healthy and happy. Novak goes to the heart of this particular grief in the pictures of her own parents, captured when they were young and utterly enraptured with their little girl. Here Lorie's s placed on a mantel to pose next to a painted portrait of herself, the grinning parents on either side swelling up with love for her ("Fragments," 1987/2001); there she's a toddler afraid of a photographer, but held safely in her mother's embrace ("Clutching," 1994).

Novak goes repeatedly back to the images of those early idyllic years, but tempers them with the ambiguity that life inevitably brings. The mantelpiece scene is part of a new picture that features a scattering of snapshots on a broad table. Viewed together, the picture's bits and pieces make up a grown woman, a person who is the sum of many past parts. The new work gets at the truth that our pasts are layered up, in years, in memories--and in snapshots.

"Night Sky," 1990, is a lyrical homage to Novak's mother. A lovely Western landscape is languorous beneath a blue evening sky. Pines stand tall at left, overlooking a rolling red-brown hill. White ranch fences line a classic country road, curving metaphorically into the future. It's a peaceful scene but there's something unforeseen up among the trees. The face of her lovely young mother is up there smiling benevolently, the branches intertwining with her hair. She's there and yet she's not there; just as the past is always with us.

Lorie Novak: Photographs, 1983-2000, and Collected Visions: An Installation continue through Sunday, April 29 at the Center for Creative Photography. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.

On Thursday, April 26, from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m., daughters on campus for Take Our Daughters to Work Day are invited to bring in a favorite family photograph to be scanned into the artist's database on the Collected Visions Web site. On Sunday, April 29 from 1 to 4 p.m., families participating in Family Day are also invited to scan in family photos. The day's activities also include special exhibitions of work by third graders and high school students and a Digital Family Portrait Station, with roving photographers from Tucson High Magnet School available to take family portraits. For more information call 621-7968.

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