Searching for ‘a-ha’
Photographer Beth Yarnelle Edwards talks about her exhibit Suburban Dreams
I’ll never forget what a Russian friend once told me, a serrated edge to her voice: “Nowhere else but America do people just expect their lives to be happy.”
She must be referring to the “American Dream,” I thought, the hand-me-down credo we learn from childhood that preaches the God-given right of any person—regardless of race, creed or gender—to pursue happiness and achieve success from any circumstances. You too can be president someday.
One need only gaze upon that entrenchment of middle-class values known as “suburbia” to actually see the American Dream at work, literally. Looking past the glossy, Windexed surfaces and into a shared humanity of myth-like icons and reality is what the current Chico State exhibit Suburban Dreams, by award-winning Bay Area photographer Beth Yarnelle Edwards, is all about.
“These people that I shoot say to me all the time, ‘We feel like we’re living the American Dream,'” Yarnelle explains via phone from her home in San Carlos. “Immigrants come here for this—I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just interested in it.”
So are other people, it seems—the 52-year old Yarnelle’s works have experienced wide acceptance since she began studying photography 10 years ago. After receiving technical training in photography at the College of San Mateo, she entered her early photo work in San Francisco magazine Photometro’s annual competition, where national editors were able to check out her intimate, iconic imagery shot in middle-class suburban homes. To her excitement, her work began winning competitions, both nationally and abroad, and was used by major magazines Harper’s and The New Yorker.
“I came at this out of left field,” she notes. “I think being a fully-formed adult with a lifetime of experience helped … but I was going by instinct.”
Edwards has lived her entire life in suburbs.
She spent her early years growing up in Los Angeles, right around the corner from Jerry Mathers, the child actor who played “The Beav” on Leave It To Beaver. ("He never came out to play because he was always practicing his lines,” she recalls.)
Her family soon relocated to the San Fernando Valley, where Edwards grew up in those suburbs, becoming intimate with the details and rites of passage that she now depicts in her work.
Attending college at UCLA, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After a couple years spent living in Mexico in her early 20s, she realized she had an eye for noticing cultural details, and she returned to school to earn her master’s in English so that she could write about her interests. After working as an ESL teacher, Edwards soon discovered she was “not very articulate” when it came to writing, so she turned to the visual medium of photography—and eventually, a second master’s degree, in photography.
Viewing the 22 color photos currently on display in Taylor Hall, one notices some recurring themes. Those works shot within the intimate confines of bedrooms and living rooms—some teenage girls getting ready for a dance or kids watching The Simpsons on TV—share a common ambience set by the accumulation of objects (books, toys, games, CDs, televisions) that frame the scenes. Then there is the warm, suffused glow of different light settings that imparts a uniqueness of its own, as if the shadowy walls hold generational memories, whispering behind.
“As a composite, I intend the work to be a portrait of a way of life. However, each individual picture I really try to blank my brain, go in and honestly see what I find without preconceived notions—its not all just bleak stereotypes and isolation. There are all kinds of other things going on.”
Light is an important part of Edwards’ work, one that she uses to project what she terms “hyper-realism.”
“We are in a sense re-enacting for the camera. … The hyper-real experience, or ‘a-ha moment,’ is a cinematic thing—I’m trying to create a look that causes the viewer to see reality more deeply and really enter into the picture.”
This is why Edwards prefers working inside to outside, where conditions are more difficult to control. Her shutter speed is very slow—usually a half-second, “an eternity for the person to hold still in a natural position.”
While Edwards says she likes the frozen quality of her pictures, which she calls “tableaux vivant,” the best of her work does not appear staged but rather feels like a relaxed, interpersonal moment. After repeated shots (usually three rolls or 60 negatives using her Mamiya 7 camera) she often manages a forthright glimpse into some inner space within the constant hum of the suburbs themselves. It’s like reading the electricity meter that feeds the hopes and dreams of a successful middle-class American family.
One way Edwards achieves this intimacy is by being a “cultural insider,” or working with people she’s already familiar with. She pre-arranges shoots with family friends and neighbors, explaining her work and asking them to pick activities and rooms where they conduct the most normal, everyday behavior ("privileged access—people are comfortable with me, people will relate to me").
In the photo “The Toxic Calamity” (pictured) Edwards was inspired to shoot the unusual home of a woman who approached her at a photography show and quipped, “You could never photograph my house because your pictures are so pretty.” This only inspired Edwards to load her camera and get over there.
“My goal is not to make flattering pictures but make an interesting scene that says something about contemporary life,” Edwards says.
It turned out the woman was a stockbroker who was highly allergic to chemicals and had to work at home in a stable, controlled environment. An unfortunate accident had occurred, when her local sewer system backed up and invaded her house, creating a huge toxic mess that took over a year to clean up. As you can see in the picture, her home life was turned upside down. Still, without knowing the background, one might easily infer that this picture was meant to comment on the sterile, quarantine-like extremes of living in a sheltered environment.
Audience reaction to the work depends on the viewers, Edwards explains, including “their knowledge of imagery, their expectations and biases.
“I have people think I’m Norman Rockwell, and I have people who think my work is dark and creepy.”
Because the suburban lifestyle is increasingly dominant all over the world, it is not surprising that European audiences have been interested in Edwards’ work. She says most people she meets overseas are used to artists commenting or presenting satirical views of the suburbs, but Europeans particularly appreciate the honesty in her work and tend to pay a great deal of attention to detail.
“The Europeans are fascinated because this is a very intimate, privileged view. … Of course, they notice the amount of stuff and that we live differently, but I think there is something more.”
As a challenge, Edwards wants to do a similar project in Europe, to “see if I’m as good an observer as I think I am. Would I miss the obvious? I don’t know.”
The biggest show of her career is coming up in Toulouse, France, in April. “A French guy philosopher is writing an accompanying essay,” she notes.
Meanwhile, you can check out her thought-provoking series of color photos for one more week inside the University Art Gallery in Taylor Hall.