Editor’s note: Former Reed student Mara Gibbs died in a fire in February 2017. The exhibit of Gibbs’ photographs which honors her memory has been open during viewing hours in Vollum lounge since Paideia, and will close on February 27.
Mara Gibbs was an incredibly quirky person. When we moved in together during sophomore year, I didn’t know if our friendship would survive her whims for vintage floral furniture, eating bananas dipped in yogurt on the kitchen floor, or cleaning our apartment in a way that made it look messier to me.
But we figured out ways to love each other despite our differences. Photography was one of those ways. I couldn’t understand why she cared so much about decorating our apartment with doilies and a rocket shaped trash can, but I loved the hours we spent deciding how to arrange the prints left over from her high school art show on our living room walls.
The themes of her photography can be macabre. Loneliness, abandonment, alienation, failure, decay, death, and nostalgia all feature prominently. But the most significant theme in her work is tenderness. Even the pieces which focus most on death and decay are decorated in patterns, composed with focus, and illuminated by a single bright source of light. Most of the pictures up in the exhibit are portraits. Mara was a proud atheist, but her pessimistic view of the world and her elevation of nature’s complexity were tempered by her faith in friends and in herself. From the beginning of our friendship, looking at the pictures she took of me was like hearing her say “I love you.”
Her photography is often overexposed to illuminate the complex patterns hidden in fields of color and blocks of shadow. Overexposure highlights the veins, wrinkles, and freckles in someone’s skin. It creates high contrast of color and shadow, which forces the entire picture frame into focus and reduces the distinction between background and foreground. The more a picture is exposed, the more detail it contains. In Mara’s lens everything received attention and analysis. By mapping detail she emphasizes life’s infinite complexity.
The patterns Mara picks out of shadow and color draw us into her photographs, making us see things we’ve never noticed, piquing our curiosity. Her photographs expose us to the experiences of intimacy they describe, just as leaving a lens open exposes a reel of film. The intimacy of detail bruises our memories and bleeds our emotions.
In Mara’s eyes, the world is complex, messy, and ephemeral, but moments are always beautiful, intelligible, and capable of creating permanent marks. The attention of her camera is an expression of unconditional love and belonging. Mara used photography to construct intimacy between herself and her friends, herself and her surroundings, herself and strangers, strangers and their surroundings, strangers and their strangenesses. She squeezed love from the parts of our bodies — flaws, follicles, freckles, hairs, and scars that we don’t usually let others or ourselves see. In her work these flaws are not accidents — they are worthy of consideration. Her photography is as tender as it is bruising. Her pictures of intimate moments are bruises themselves, their color palate usually limited to blues, blacks, and yellows. Mara’s photographs blend person and pattern, background and foreground, the ephemeral and the infinite, to elevate love above all else.
To see the final scheduled viewing hours for the exhibit, curated by the Cooley Gallery, stop by Vollum lounge on Wednesday, February 27, between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m..