By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • 

A case of photosurrealism

Photo courtesy of Jamila Clarke##This photo, titled “Wrote Nothing,” is photographer Jamila Clarke’s metaphor for procrastination. With its vintage clothing and Underwood No. 5 typewriter, it combines many of the common elements in Clarke’s photography -— especially her fascination with the aesthetics of the past.
Photo courtesy of Jamila Clarke##This photo, titled “Wrote Nothing,” is photographer Jamila Clarke’s metaphor for procrastination. With its vintage clothing and Underwood No. 5 typewriter, it combines many of the common elements in Clarke’s photography -— especially her fascination with the aesthetics of the past.

She has been sitting in front of the typewriter a long time. A very long time.

Dust and cobwebs cover the typewriter, table and the writer herself. She is either lost in thought or asleep. The sheet of paper in the typewriter is blank, as are the sheets on the table.

Nonetheless, there’s a story here. And judging from the writer’s clothes and her Underwood No. 5 typewriter, it took place near the turn of the last century.
All photographer Jamila Clarke’s images have stories to tell. They also have lessons to teach. The writer covered with dust and cobwebs is a fable about procrastination and creativity, Clarke said.

“One of the most difficult parts is just getting started,” she said. “You’re so obsessed with making a mistake you don’t accomplish anything.”

Lack of creative output isn’t a problem for Clarke. The prolific photographer and graphic designer will share 25 of her images during “Strange Narratives,” the exhibit running through May 12 at the Parrish Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg.

Clarke will visit the gallery during a reception from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 4, with a question-and-answer period starting at 7 p.m.

Clarke’s images begin with traditional photography, but through the use of digital editing, take a sharp turn into the surreal in what Clarke said she hopes is an exploration of the complex emotions of everyday life.

The works are unrelated, she added, but they also complement one another.

“We selected the pieces that all work together to create a cohesive experience,” she said. “It’s more of a general concept that works between them, but they’re all narrative in a sense. In each photo, there’s a lesson to take away or a commentary.”

In one image, a woman with bloodied hands holds what resembles a set of wings. Next to her is a basin with bloody water and a soaked rag. “It’s about her giving away her freedom,” Clarke explained.

Like most of Clarke’s subjects, the woman is wearing vintage-style clothing that appears to be from the late 19th or early 20th century. “I’m a general history buff, which I guess comes across in my work a bit,” she said.

Don’t try to hold her to historical accuracy, she warned. Elements within her photographs are pulled from numerous points within the space-time continuum.

“I kind of like to mix period elements,” she said. Influences include the Victorian era combined with modern touches to give her work a steampunk aesthetic. “I think it has a timeless quality,” she said.

Clarke was born in New York but grew up primarily in Vancouver, Washington.

“I discovered my first camera at 8 and fell in love with film in middle school. But it wasn’t until I discovered digital photography that everything came together,” she said. “I was able to create impossible moments, narratives worthy of folktales and add a little magic to everyday life.”

Wr work reflects the past, her technique remains entirely modern — combining the realism of photography with the interpretation of drawing and painting. Some photographers avoid digitally manipulating reality. Clarke revels in it.

“Digital is more interesting in terms of what you could do with editing,” she said.

She did some traditional photography for the high school yearbook at Catlin Gabel School. But most of her work wasn’t for public consumption. “It was mostly a lot of family photos, photos of friends,” Clarke said. “I took a class, something like a photo club, where we did a lot of photo projects.”

She was more interested in theater as a school activity, she said, which evolved into an interest in filmmaking when she attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she majored in studio art and theater. Her theatrical enthusiasm continues to express itself with an interest in cosplay, the hobby of dressing up as characters from pop culture.

Clarke, for example, made a “Star Trek” uniform inspired by Lt. Uhura. She is a major trekkie, she admitted, although she has trouble choosing a favorite between the original series and its “Next Generation” sequel. “I love them both,” she said.

Her taste is pop culture is very broad, she added. “I love anime and animated movies.”

Clarke, who works as a graphic designer at Crafts Americana in Vancouver, said she approaches her photos as a filmmaker, playwright or other professional storyteller.

“I usually start with a short bit of a story,” she said. “Then I’ll sketch it out and start looking for locations. From that point, I’ll start building props. It’s kind of like a play production.”

And unlike the writer in her photograph, the dust never has a chance to settle.

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