Dark Shadows: Photographer David Carlson shoots on the strange side

by Pamela Polston
Seven Days October 18, 1995

Something about David Carlson's photographs suggest he's just a little odd. Or at least, that he has an eye for out-of-the-ordinary images. It's a subtle thing, but the cumulative effect of his 40 chrome-framed prints is to make the viewer believe that reality is not just passively hanging around; it's waiting to be noticed. It might even be lurking and ready to pounce.

Though some of these photos have vaguely ominous overtones--foreboding shadows, looming pine trees or gravestones--some are simply quirky, and others are explosions of color in otherwise drab surroundings. In any case, Carlson looks through the camera with the eyes of a poltergeist--his observances are unnaturally acute and often question the patina of normality.

One of his finest in the quirky category is "Larry's Flea Market, Pittsford, Vermont." On the surface it's a scene with high-voltage color. At another level it's a man and his dog. But at this frozen moment and this foreshortened perspective, it's a puny sliver of a dog and whale of a person, his back to the viewer, in unflattering, florid pants. Between the two a leash strains tautly, a narrow bridge between, ostensibly, best friends. It's a subtle bead on psychological drama between man and animal, owner and owned.

Carlson, the executive art director of Middlebury's Evergreen Advertising agency, has a knack for creating shots as well as happening upon them. Though he modestly attributes some of his photos to "being in the right place at the right time." "Phoebe with Self-Portrait" exemplifies the right set-up at the right time. The quartet of 20x40-inch prints of his wife, the painter Phoebe Stone, places her in front of a painting of herself. With her long red hair and Morticia Adams features, she is striking enough, and uncannily duplicated in the portrait. the last frame captures Stone in a blur, as if passing into the next dimension, leaving only her painted image for this world.

Some of what Carlson calls "expressive portraiture," using flash at night or twilight, finds subjects with caught-in-the-headlights faces. In "After the Halloween Parade, Middlebury," a small boy dressed in a yellow polka-dot clown suit stands outside a chain-link fence encircling a green playing field. While the boy stands frozen in clownhood, a time exposure makes objects in the background appear to be in motion. "I used to work in film, and I'm going for a little more from a still image," says Carlson. "That element of chance--when it happens, it's amazing."

Using the drama of inky sky to good effect, Carlson flashes otherwise ordinary shots into the realm of startling beauty: his pubescent son Ethan before a stand of drooping, post-frost sunflowers; a diver in mid-leap toward a turquoise pool; a white granite sculpture towering, ghostlike, against the night. Daytime landscape shots examine transitory light and shadow: A hillock of green, a brush of yellow-green shrubbery and cloud-laden sky make for both a lovely nature study and an abstract vision of color and shape.

Though Carlson has no apparent intention of making Important Statements, his work explores the interaction of humans and the natural world with understated wit. The simply titled "Triptych" combines three sun-drenched shots: a lawn thoroughly decorated with ornaments and whirly-gigs; a black clad, flame-haired stone squatting against a burled tree; a treetop bowing against a beautiful blue sky and puffy clouds. It's an idiosyncratic abutment of innocuous, unrelated images. Carlson, sensing some relationship among them, challenges the viewer to do the same. "There's something strange but satisfying in the way those photos go together," he says. "People will look at those a long time."

The "right place at the right time" shots reveal what causes Carlson to screech to halt on the road--or return to a scene when the light is better. Generally, it's an arresting chunk of color. The bright blue tarp covering a trailer parked in a snowy yard, A rash of blood-red leaves against a white verandah. Luridy colored plastic Easter eggs dangling from the winter-bare branches in front of a dreary roadside motel. An evergreen bush hung with tiny jack-o'-lanterns. Color for its own sake, color as a concept.

Carlson, 42, says he's been working exclusively with color photography for about a decade. Even so, he admits his sense of humor borders on the black, that he's drawn to the unusual and off-kilter. Its appropriate, then, that his show arrives in the month of Halloween, and that a quintessential Carlson vision is the photo of two tiny skeletons-cum-candy-dispensers on a mantel in his own home. Shadowy, delicate and ironic, this still life with a clock and handful of bills sums up a visual philosophy.

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