The line between truth and illusion in photography is one that has been frequently crossed by practitioners since the invention of the medium. Sometimes that line was crossed deliberately through the use of simple techniques like double exposing the film in order to place the same individual in two different parts of the picture (a popular technique for professionals and amateurs at the end of the nineteenth century). Other times the breach of the truth was dictated by the limitations of the materials needed to produce a picture. For example, no clouds ever appeared in a sky made with orthochromatic film, and until the 1930s rarely was a scene rendered in color, which is the most obvious breach of truth in a long list of possibilities associated with the medium. With so many opportunities to bend reality, it was inevitable that practitioners from advertising photographers to artists would exploit this characteristic of the medium.
Lori Nix is an artist who bends the line between truth and illusion in her photographs. She accomplishes this by photographing miniatures and models which illuminate her interest in the disaster movies of the 1970s and her memories of growing up in Kansas -- a place that seems to attract disasters like no other. In her series titled Accidentally Kansas Nix creates scenes of floods, tornadoes, snow storms, lightning strikes, and insect infestations, all epic and defining events recalled from her formative years in rural Kansas. The state of Kansas is located in the middle of the United States geographically, and also represents the moral middle of the road as a state of mind where conventional family values and good citizenship go hand in hand. By linking disasters with moral imperatives Nix allows herself to question conventional codes of society at the same time as she explores the unsettling memories of her youth.
Kansas has been the subject of numerous tales that link disaster, morality, and redemption. Among those are the film The Wizard of Oz and the book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking film for its dramatic use of color and inventive special effects. At the beginning of the film, Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, is caught in a Kansas twister and along with her house is carried away to Munchkin Land, a strange and terrific place. The film starts off in Kansas in bleak black and white and explodes into vivid color. Even to this day, the use of color in photography still signals fantasy when compared to the representation of reality forged by images in black and white. In the end, The Wizard of Oz is a morality tale as Dorothy learns that she can find the nourishment for life all around her if she just looks hard enough.
The book In Cold Blood chronicles the murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas in 1959 and the pursuit, capture, and, eventual execution of their murderers. Capote called the book a 'non-fiction novel' and invented a new genre of writing, which a reviewer at Amazon.com described as 'journalism written with the language and structure of literature.' In the process of recounting the senseless murders Capote is also describing the end of innocence in America where increasingly bad things were happening to good people. In the film version of the book the actor Robert Blake played the part of Perry Edward Smith, one of the murderers of the Clutter family. Robert Blake now stands accused of murdering his wife to get her out of the way, and the irony of the meaning of Herb Clutter's surname continues to haunt Capote's groundbreaking work.
In her most recent work, Nix has left Kansas behind as a subject, and, although depictions of disaster are still prominent in this new work, she has begun to explore situations that are as eerie and ominous as her former work was clear and present. This new work is charged with anxiety and uncertainty as witnesses to her previous disasters have become bystanders waiting for something to happen. Nix finished work on the series Accidentally Kansas well before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and also began work on a new series titled Some Other Place before the attacks, so a shift from natural disasters to psychological trauma began in her work before world events had a chance to influence her.
Over the past thirty years, the constructed photograph has become an integral voice in the dialogue of contemporary photography. From Bernard Faucon's carefully constructed scenes of mannequins of children, to Laurie Simmons's and Cindy Sherman's pivotal deconstructions of gender roles, to Jim Casebere's elegant architectural studies, to the monumental productions by Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, the practice of constructing images from the imagination has allowed photographers to explore, question, and extend pliable links between the veracity of photography as evidence and the photograph as extension of the imagination. As an artist in her early thirties Nix isn't very far removed from the experiences that inform her work. Recalling a pond that froze over early in the season trapping thoUnited Statesnds of frogs in the ice and then chipping them out to throw at her sister is a memory site that she continues to evolve as her work matures. When you compare her work to that of Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson, whose epic scenes and monumental scale can overwhelm the viewer with their technical virtuosity, Nix's photographs, while describing disaster and impending doom, come across with the innocence and visceral impact of a scary story told around the campfire. And like any well told story the power of Nix's photographs rely as heavily on the imagination and trepidation of the viewer as they do on the strength and timbre of her voice.
Jeffrey Hoone 2002
In what is now being referred to as a post-September 11 world, we all feel more vulnerable and unsure about the world around us. The photographic work of Lori Nix strikes an uneasy balance between humor and horror by suggesting and depicting scenes of adversity and tragedy. In her artist statement Nix discloses her passion for disaster movies such as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. In these movies, which proliferated during the 1970s, a diverse cast of characters would find themselves in extreme circumstances and would somehow have to come to terms with their life-threatening situations. Nix goes on to say, 'My town was too small to have a name; I grew up surrounded by the wheat fields of northwest Kansas. I have been in tornados, blizzards, and floods.' In her series Almost Kansas she recreates such events from her own experience, or those found in the pages of the local newspaper, isolates a specific moment to recreate in detailed miniature, and then photographs her construction. Of this work she states, 'I am interested in what might even be considered the banality of terror found in the minutes before and after an event.'
The scale models that Nix builds are incredibly detailed, yet she wants the viewer to be clearly aware of their artifice. Most of the items that she uses to construct these scenes come from the local hobby shop. Her choice of colors and lighting are harsh and extreme, and in most images the depth of field is quite shallow to reinforce the appearance of its contrivance. The exaggerated details in the tableaux she constructs suggest a hyperreality and allow us think beyond the events depicted. Chemical spills, floods, lightning strikes, or a car sliding off the road into an icy pond almost become a source of amusement, or at the very least a perverted form of irony, when depicted by Nix. The artificiality and humor found in Nix's images isolate a brief moment in which we can disassociate ourselves from the event depicted until we are pulled back to reality where we consider that there is degree of truth on which all of these images are based.
In her latest series, Ill Winds and Sour, Waters Nix looks to a point where the rural and urban landscapes converge and begins to move away from such literal depictions of catastrophes as in her Almost Kansas series. In the image Uranium Extraction Plant a menacing factory is perched atop a steep cliff, and below, three deer made out of glass stand at the shore and drink from an irradiated pool of water. Here the tenuous relationship between industry and nature is illustrated with a sense of innocence and humor. In two of her most recent images that were fashioned by the artist during her residency at Light Work, Chain Link Fence and Three Figures, Nix relies more on what is implied by the image rather than what is actually shown. In the image Three Figures subjects resembling policemen stand at the top of a hillside with their backs to the camera. As viewers we are left to speculate on the what kind of gruesome event took place. Chain Link Fence creates the same anticipation, where a fence on a hillside forbids us from witnessing what takes place beyond the view of the camera.
It's hard to imagine that any humor could be extracted from the situations that Nix constructs, yet our repressed fascination with the macabre would show otherwise. In her work Nix takes us to a place where our morbid curiosity runs amok and perhaps leads us to reflect on an aspect of our behavior that we would prefer not to be revealed.
Gary Hesse (c) 2002
More of Lori Nix's work can be viewed at http://www.lorinix.net/