Mark Chester’s witty photo pairings have a curious resonance
Published: March 7, 2012
At Balance the Salon through April 7
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It’s difficult to make a photograph that is both complex and genuinely humorous. Most funny photos are one-shot belly laughs, aimed squarely at your inner 5-year-old—you look, you laugh, you move on. Deep visual engagement is beside the point. Mark Chester succeeds where so many photographers fail, or perhaps wisely fear to tread in the first place.
Baltimore-born Chester mined his own archives, built over the 40-plus years of his career as a world-traveling street photographer, to create his amusing and deftly compiled book, Twosomes (Un-Gyve Press, hardcover). True to the title, the book’s black-and-white pictures are presented in pairs. Taken singly, the collected images are a compelling and wide-ranging record of everyday life across the planet over the past four decades—each piece could stand on its own. Taken together, the images bolster and inform each other, sometimes boldly, sometimes subtly, but the resonance generated between the twinned images considerably deepens their impact.
“I tend to photograph things that are puzzling or curious to me, or that amuse me,” Chester says. “Though I don’t set out to be funny on purpose.” Even so, his offbeat sense of humor informs these images, playfully relating, say, Shriners to cowboy-hatted Western re-enactors, or serious, suited businessmen to Japanese Boy Scouts. The overall effect is akin to a mischievous photographer allowing his audience to peek over his shoulder as he works, an effect that is heightened by the fact that pondering pair after pair of related images requires an unusually high degree of engagement on the part of the viewer.
The photos on the back cover of the book are a prime example of Chester’s power of pairing: The left-hand side of the dyptych, “Eyeglasses, California, 1978” is a compelling composition of people walking along a beach as seen through a pair of eyeglasses held in front of the camera. The shape of the frame dominates and defines the image, but retreats and multiplies tenfold in its companion picture, “Sol Moscot Optician, New York, 1970.” The repetition of the motif is intellectually witty and visually engaging in its own right, but Chester seals the deal with a serendipitously brilliant detail: His lens captures the moment when an elderly bicyclist has paused before the optical shop. The bike’s wheels provide an unrelated, yet undeniably strong, compositional tie between the images.
Twosomes was a long time in the making. Chester spent 15 years combing his own body of work, first to identify images that interested him, and then to find the strongest combinations. It is an instinct he’s long honed. From the early days of his career, he says, he liked to spread images out on a gallery floor to create “a flow, a theme” between them. “I would juggle them around until relationships formed between them, and it really seemed that many worked best as pairs,” he says. “That influenced me, and eventually I developed a process to facilitate the pairing. But the images were all taken independently—I never intentionally set out to shoot a companion for an image that I liked. I found them all, already existing, in my files.”
Chester describes the pairing process as more intuitive than linear. “Some are simply obvious couples, yes, but I strive for deeper relationships beyond the first look,” he says. “I have one set that matches a train full of logs in Idaho with a bathroom with all these rolls and rolls of toilet paper. I feel these twosomes most succeed when they relate on multiple levels. So here is the repetition of shapes, the graphic element, but there is also the intellectual: Cut-down trees get converted into paper.”
Twosomes has been well received, and exhibits of photos from the book are touring all over the world in venues as prestigious as Manhattan’s OK Harris Gallery and as obscure as Baltimore’s own Balance the Salon, in Roland Park. (Yes, that is “salon” as in hair salon.) Though a welcome if relatively rare encounter with museum-quality photography (literally: Chester’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Corcoran, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in Baltimore is not to be discounted, that Chester chose to show his work in one of Baltimore’s finest beauty parlors rather than one of the city’s galleries is, well, something of a curious move.
“Hey, a gig is a gig,” Chester quips when asked how the Balance show came about. The back-story is a bit more flattering. It turns out that, although Chester left Charm City back in the 1950s when he was in fifth grade, he’s remembered us fondly ever since. Even as he spent a life roaming Tanzania, the American Southwest, California, and Cape Cod—ultimately settling in Woods Hole, Mass.—he periodically returns to Baltimore to visit friends and take pictures. Indeed, Baltimore is depicted several times within the book, including a star turn by Lexington Market’s now defunct Polock Johnny’s. So when his friend Ron Soloman, a local architectural photographer, suggested he consider Balance as a potential exhibition site, Chester was game.
“It may not be the most obvious choice, but I feel photographs are meant to be shared,” he says. “We collect this body of work, and what do we do with it? I’d rather have my work go out and be alive in the community rather than sitting in storage.” Besides, Chester says, “I’m impressed with [Balance owner] Matt Kone and his commitment to photography. Unlike your typical gallery owner, he’s not necessarily worried about selling anything. He just wants to show good work.”
Indeed, ever since Balance opened a decade ago the salon has doubled as a photography gallery, with shows changing every three months. The public is welcome to visit simply to view the show, no haircut required.
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