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In Narrative Photo Exhibition, Every Picture Tells A Story

A touring exhibition by Anne Leighton Massoni and Libby Rowe showcases narrative photography

Unlike other types of photography, such as landscape and portraiture, the point of narrative photography is to tell a story. But Spinning Yarns, a traveling exhibition by curators Anne Leighton Massoni and Libby Rowe, takes this concept a step further, they say. After all, to spin a yarn means to do more than recount events; it means to create a tale. 

The photos in the exhibition — 64 works from 23 photographers from around the United States — use metaphor, open-ended narrative and subtle manipulation to inspire stories in the viewers’ imaginations. The photos provide the building blocks, but the narrative remains open to/for interpretation. The exhibition is on display this month at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland.

“In the world of contemporary photography, we felt like what we had been seeing was focusing on social documentary, travel, location-based imagery,” Rowe says. “As photographers that cultivated a narrative, we thought maybe our time had come and gone, but we found that people still want to be told stories.”

Massoni and Rowe got to know each other at Society for Photographic Education conferences and first showed the exhibition three years ago at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They then took the show on the road, putting it up at galleries across the country.

Two of the photographers showcased were living in Portland. Grace Weston, who has since moved to Seattle, photographed whimsical dioramas that combine humor and psychological tension. Blue Mitchell, publisher of Diffusion photography magazine, printed his eerie images on sheets of birch to give them a sepia-like tone.

“They come off a little Tim Burton-esque,” Mitchell says. “My prior work is darker, so I was trying to flesh that out and not make it as dark, but more spiritual.”

Portland photographer Blue Mitchell blends reality and fantasy in his photo titled "Reconstructing Nature."

Portland photographer Blue Mitchell blends reality and fantasy in his photo titled “Reconstructing Nature.”  

Blue Mitchell

Two of his prints, which are acrylic list, an inkjet transfer process, feature crows. Mitchell says he has “a bit of an obsession” with crows, seeing them as sorts of shamans. Another print, “Reconstructing Nature,” depicts a woman trying to wrap twigs into a ball. That one is is about the human attempt to organize nature.

Other artists’ photos show grizzly bears paired with Twinkies, a woman waving semaphore flags and marbles scattered on a sidewalk. The way the photos are created are varied, too. Some artists take a straightforward approach, taking photos of things in the world, and some artists create the subject of the image from scratch. One of Massoni’s favorites is an image by Erin Sotak titled “Call Me For Dinner, Sometime,” in which a woman is nailing cherries to a table. The photo is actually a snapshot of a live performance that Sotak created and directed.

“These are all really amazing image thinkers,” Rowe says. “This is a whole set of artists who approach visual storytelling from very different perspectives.”

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