A first glance at the photographs hanging in the entrance hallway of Photolab in West Berkeley could cause some confusion. The well-executed pictures carefully hung along the long, narrow passage are a seemingly random collection of moments and memories with titles like “After the Rain, Old Quebec (Quebec, 1984)” and “Adria at Ebbets Field (Brooklyn, NY, 1950)” and “Cow, Point Reyes National Seashore (Marin, CA, 1995)”.
The simple and curiously strong compositions come from Stephen A. Fisher, a self-taught Berkeley photographer who, for the last 50 years, has been taking photos of his family, his travels, and the sudden chance inspirations visiting his keen eye. Individually, the quality of the mostly color photos are several notches above the work of an exuberant shutterbug; these are thoughtfully composed portraits and landscapes with a deft sense of energy in the design of a subject placed compellingly in its environment.
Together, these seemingly random photos represent an exercise in form described succinctly by the show’s title: “Stephen A. Fisher: Images In Juxtaposition.” The hallway of photos, which stretch behind Photolab’s cashier counter and around its printing machine, are presenting pictures in pairs to highlight the similarities of Fisher’s composition techniques.
Upon entering the building from the sidewalk, the first set of photos begins with “Train to Kuranda (Queensland, Australia, 1997)” wherein Fisher, seated inside a train car moving along a track cut into the side of a mountain, took a photo of the train ahead as it glides dramatically to the left. Next to that picture is another of his wife, Susan, wearing a sundress circa 1965, standing in a patio overlooking Laguna Beach, the seashore sweeping dramatically to the right. The inspiration, Fisher writes in the show’s program notes, comes from an obscure French film called “That Man From Rio” (with “Breathless” star Jean-Paul Belmondo), a farce which had Belmondo hanging from a hotel balcony above the dramatic sweep of Copacabana Beach.
The clever mix-and-match conceit of the show gets some weight as it reveals expressive nuance from Fisher’s bag of tricks. Three photos of ponds and puddles reflecting the color of the sky create a collage effect in the striking color contrast as a piece of the sky is laid into the land. Nearby on the gallery wall is “Children in the Rearview Mirror (Near Sonoma Coast, 1973)”, a shot of the landscape taken through the window of a moving car, in the middle of which is a mirror reflecting the kids in the back seat. Fisher uses the disjunctive image in the mirror to produce a similar collage effect, contrasting the expanse of land outside with the small confines of the travelers inside.
Some of these techniques Fisher has been utilizing repeatedly in his amateur photography over the last 50 years. But revisiting his portfolio to put this show together – his first – held some surprises. “It’s really been a revelation to me,” he said. “Sometimes it’s totally unconscious.” Two of his pictures, taken 35 years apart, both show a person, alone, in an environment blanketed in white: fog in one case, snow in another. The feeling is similar, however the artist admits he didn’t realize just how similar until the photos were laid side by side.
There are two photos of the World Trade Center – both taken out a window from the restaurant on the 107th floor. Both are juxtaposed with other photos to highlight the vertical lines (of trees, of window panes, of the Twin Towers’ shadows) and the contrast of foreground and background. These are the most telling case of how the show’s formalist aim does not allow any one photo to stand on its own. The pairing of the pictures leads the viewer away from any profundity a picture’s subject might provoke in favor of the show’s overarching compare-and-contrast structure.
A small card is hung among the photos – it isn’t obvious, you have to look for it – describing the nature of juxtaposition. Written by Fisher’s son Jacob Fisher, who has a Ph.D., in rhetoric, it cites culture philosopher Michel Foucault: ‘Space is the metaphor of the possibility that things can be juxtaposed.”
When asked what that means in laymen’s terms, the father Fisher said, “juxtaposition happens in space, and space itself is a trope. Space is a medium in which you could move things around.”
The experience happens not just in the somewhat cramped space of Photolab but in the mind of the viewer: the energy frozen in the photos – the soft lighting and rich red color of a hallway in “Pat, St. Francis Hotel” or the physical joy of diving in “Karin, Albany Pool” – vibrate in the mind’s eye when seen together.
Professionally, Fisher is a psychiatrist, working most of his life in community mental health institutions. His career and his hobby came together in a documentary he made, “Veterans Home, Yountville,” about a state facility in Napa Valley, and once hoped to make a film about the history, evolution and demise of the psychiatric institution as a community. The film would have been called “Town in the Fog.” Fog, said Fisher, is a metaphor of a confused mental state, but it can also be a great comfort, a protection.
“All of my pictures with people show people in relationship to their environment,” said Fisher, “there’s a harmony between people and environment.”
This insight sheds a different light on the photos of blanketed whiteness. What might seem to be two men, 35 years apart, stranded in a featureless, colorless isolation could invoke a mental peace, and denote a world wherein its people enjoy a blissful calm, albeit alone. Any one photo might not be able to communicate that.
Stephen A. Fisher’s “Images In Juxtaposition” is on display until June 8 at Photolab Gallery, 2235 Fifth St., 644 1400.