Olivia Parker’s Looking Glass


Olivia Parker, Contact, 1978

Olivia Parker is a photographer of the still life and her book Under the Looking Glass has 43 of them.

Parker is from Boston, an old America city with a history going far back into the nation’s history. She studied art at Wellesley College, an elite university for women, also old. So it’s not surprising that the still life props and the meditative quality of her photographs seem imbued with history and time.

Parker’s first book was Signs of Life, a collection of black & white still lifes of plants and shells, toned to give them a subtle three-dimensional quality. It had an impact on still life photography.

Working in colour, she used Polaroid’s Polacolor film in 5×4 and 8×10 formats which give the prints a smooth lustrous quality. The slowness of the large cameras, the precision of composition and the thoughtfulness of the images were all of a piece.

The two photographs presented here are from Under the Looking Glass and they seem like twins. Each has a flat background of an antique chart plus an organic prop in contrast. The charts are man-made and the props are from nature.

In Contact, the chart has diagrams of the sun and the human eye with angles of reflection and transmission. It’s a human analysis of the phenomena of vision, optics and light. The dry linear geometry of these diagrams contrasts with the the yellow rose, a great bursting form of colour and life. The rose, like the sun itself, is a giant celestial eye.

What are yellow roses for? They are an optical device too, a light signal to attract the eyes of bees and butterflies, for sexual propagation.


Olivia Parker, Marine II, 1981

Marine II uses the same compositional device, a vintage technical drawing with a natural prop, a shell. The drawing is titled Marine and may refer to the design of a yacht, given the shape of the outline. It is a serious mathematical design with numbers and grids, clearly made for accurate calculation.

The French word echelle appears in a caption, a homonym for the English word shell. But echelle means scale or proportion, not shell, and is a reference to the geometric chart. The picture rests on a verbal/visual pun.

The shell itself is a section of a nautilus shell that grow in perfect scale or proportion and resembles the Golden Section. Bluish crystals, the colour of the sea, complete the nautical associations.

Like Contact, Marine II is an encounter between man and nature. The difficult and learned mathematics of the technical chart contrast with the natural simplicity of the Nautilus shell, made on a logarithmic spiral. What it takes man the sweat of mathematical calculations is produced blindly by an ocean mollusc.



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