When you first look at Jo Whaley’s images, you are immediately struck by the
beauty of the constructed scene. Upon closer examination,
you will discover that all is not right in paradise — no matter how beautiful
that Eden might be. The irony between the beauty of nature and what we’ve done
to it as a culture is a central theme in this body of work.
Whaley first became seriously interested in photography while working toward her MFA in painting at the University of California, Berkeley. When asked what sparked her curiosity in the medium, she replies, "My interest came about in two ways. First, I was studying painting while the period of minimalism was occurring. I found that I was interested in the tangible world, which photography captured better than painting. I also discovered I could develop my ideas more quickly with photography than through my painting."
Rather than veering off to a new path entirely, and abandoning her MFA program, she decided to begin working simultaneously on an MA in photography. "I felt there was a natural flow between the two mediums," she explains, "and I wanted to respond to it."
The move to a 4 x 5 camera is one that Whaley made early on. "Even when I was in school I felt the need for a larger negative, because I wanted to make larger prints," she states. "I also wanted to use the movements that a view camera affords."
After Whaley completed school, she worked for several years as a successful scenic artist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was employed as the Head Scenic Artist at the Zellerbach Playhouse at UC Berkeley, and also painted sets for the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Company. "I found that I learned a lot from working in the theater, in terms of the kind of work I do now," she says when recalling her experience in this field. "The images I create today are really theatrical tableau that I photograph with the view camera."
Whaley has been able to take much of her knowledge from the scenic design industry and use it in her photographic work. An example of this is the creation of the stone wall, which is seen in the image "Rubberloupe." "I built that wall in a theatrical fashion," she explains. "The back of it is hollow, and it is constructed of planking and concrete. She also uses scenic techniques, such as putting colored gels on her strobe lights, as is done in the theater, in order to integrate objects with the background.
She also draws upon her painting experience. Whaley paints all of the backdrops for her still lifes. These tend to be large and dramatic; each created to evoke a specific mood. When asked about the importance her backgrounds play in the creation of the final image, Whaley replies, "The backdrops help to set the tone of the photograph and provide an atmosphere. The color selections are very conscious choices, based on the various emotive qualities that each color evokes."
On her working process, she says, "I don't like to draw up a script before I start to work. I have rough ideas and I bring in various materials and play with them in order to develop an image. I like to work intuitively and not have a literal translation or symbolism for each thing I put in the image. I try to preserve an enigmatic quality, somewhat open to interpretation so the work does not become too dogmatic."
At times, Whaley will work on several variations of one image. An example of this is the photograph entitled "Atomic Tea Party". This image exists in three very different ways. "In one of them," she explains, "I have a background with a huge explosion. There is also a fire going on in the teapot. This image takes the viewer to a much more obvious direction. The one shown here is much more subtle, and allows the viewer a more open interpretation." Whaley's third version of "Atomic Tea Party" has a blue sky, and a rose coming out of the sugar bowl; which gives the image a very different look and feel.
It is an easy task for Whaley to create more than one version of a photograph thanks to her studio setup, which she likens to a scenic shop. "There is a prop room and a collection of backdrops that I have painted so it's very easy to just go in and start working. I work with Polaroid to check my progress, but if I'm pretty sure I have captured the image, I just break down the set at the end of the day and wait to see the negative. I prefer to start fresh in the morning, rather than letting it sit around."
The images included here comprise part of her most current series, Natura Morta, which is Italian for still life and literally translates to "dead nature". This series came about from a desire to reflect on how we, as a culture, respond to nature. "I started thinking about everything that is going on today with the environment, and how our way of life is so destructive," she says. "I decided to create a series of images that would reflect my thoughts on how we've detached ourselves from nature in favor of our comfortable, artificial urban environment."
While Whaley wanted to present a contemporary view of the subject, she also wanted her images to reflect upon the traditional principles of still life painting. In many traditional still lifes, the images were presented in an intentionally beautiful way, yet included many seemingly incongruous elements. "Beautiful imagery is not especially popular right now," she explains, "and I want to reinstate the notion of beauty in art through my work." Beauty has long been an impulse of art making. It's a way to draw the viewer in and get them engaged in the seduction and sensuality of the image. Once they've been drawn in, you can twist them around.
Whaley agrees. "That's what I'm intentionally trying to do with this work. It brings a dichotomy between the beautiful and the more ponderous or morbid aspects of it. The beauty alludes to the opulence and comfort of our culture, which is constructed at the expense of our environment. The quirks imply the time bomb inherent in this conflict."
"The reason I'm using this theatrical approach is because I want to create an atmosphere in my photographs which is poised between the real and the imaginary," she says. "I like the veracity of photography and its surrealistic potential. The construction of the set and the painting infuse the final image with fantasy."
An aspect that is often repeated in the work is the idea of the scientific. "This is something which is reflected in many of my photographs," she explains. "I enjoy working with a sort of zany, scientific display which is quirky and a little bit humorous. Our industrialized culture has a very scientific stance toward nature now and we think through analyzing nature, one can explain it. I feel that with this viewpoint, it is really easy for us to run amok, so I like to poke a bit of fun at the scientific approach."
Whaley prefers to work with negatives over transparencies, and prints all of her 4 x 5 color work to 20 x 24 herself to ensure the highest possible quality. "I really enjoy doing my own printing," she says. "I like to be able to try different color interpretations when I work in the darkroom. Also, the color in my work is so subjective that I don't feel I can farm it out." The only exception to this working process is when she uses the Polaroid 20 x 24 camera in New York. She has been able to use this camera through an artist's grant from the Polaroid Corporation. An example of the work she has done with the 20 x 24 camera is the image "Polite Society."
Whaley has exhibited Natura Morta at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco, Calif., and will be included in the upcoming exhibition 4 + 4, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe New Mexico.
In addition to her work as an artist, Whaley has taught photography at the University level for the past decade. Generally she teaches at San Jose State University in California, though she is currently filling in for Patrick Nagatani at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque while he is on a semester-long sabbatical. Of this, Whaley comments, "It's been a great experience. It's known as one of the best programs in the country, and I'm excited not only by the challenges that I'm able to face teaching here, but the potential evolution of my work in response to living here. I love the Bay Area, but it tens to be very European in feel. I think New Mexico will give my works a new dimension."
The most important aspect of teaching, to Whaley, is the symbiotic relationship between herself and her students. "I always learn from my students," she says. "Teaching allows me to give my knowledge to others, and they in turn share their insights with me. I find that teaching gives me time to think more intellectually about photography, whereas when I'm actually working in the medium I tend to be more intuitive, and rely on my subconscious. I've discovered that thinking about photography in a completely different way helps me in my work."
Beauty is a mysterious thing; it can deceive and lull you into a false sense of security. Danger is present even when wrapped in a pretty package. Jo Whaley's work reminds us of that fact.
Lizabeth A. Johnson is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This article originally appeared in View Camera Magazine (March/April 1994).