Images Like Bottom-Fish, Color Photographs by David Carlson

by Dwight Garner

David Carlson's photographs give off a fevered buzz that may remind you of the first time you saw David Lynch's Blue Velvet. There's that same rush of oblique angles and overripe colors, the sensation of the familiar pivoting on the unthinkable.

Like his wife, artist Phoebe Stone, Carlson has his transistor tuned into cosmic frequencies that seem just beyond human range. But where Stone's paintings soar off into their own swirling infra-logic, Carlson stays rooted to the earth, capturing domestic scenes full of warped, wicked irony.

Fifty of Carlson's images--a huge number for a single exhibit--are now on display. Fewer than a handful seem out of place: these are images of family (his) and motion, many of them rescued, with the help of bursts of flash, from a kind of devouring twilight.

One thing you'll notice right away about this demi-autobiographical exhibit: the Carlson/Stone family hasn't taken many cues from Ozzie and Harriet. The stars of these (mostly) unposed images are Stone and the couple's nine-year-old son Ethan, and both are captivating, waiflike presences. Several of the photos of the pair were snapped as Ethan prepared to go trick-or-treating, but then, it always seems to be Halloween at their place. It's the kind of house that, when you're a kid, you never want to leave; everything about it seems, well, different. It's Pee-wee's playhouse of the imagination.

"Ethan Jumping," is a typical Carlson image. In it Ethan is caught by a flashbulb in mid-air as he is leaping from a tree stump. His face and body are slightly contorted, and his bright blue-green jacket is a burst of wild color. It's the kind of image that makes some people cluck their tongues and say "I could do that"--but they couldn't. Carlson has a thrilling ability to distill his vague, childlike sentiments into specific images that contain real emotional power. The images in his photographs seem to surface, blinking, like botom-fish that were never meant to see the light of day.

Another telling image is "Puddle." In it, Ethan is playing by a puddle that has formed on the bright surface of a tennis court. His body, again, seems unnaturally contorted, but the ominous note in this photograph is the puddle, which distends like an amoeba, reflects a cluster of trees and seems deep enough to swallow the child whole. It's an unnerving image.

"Poplars," is also representative in feel. In the photograph Ethan and Stone stand at twilight before a stretch of poplars that seem twitching and alive, they reach up threatening against a yellow sky. The flash has blurred the fringes of the image of mother and son, as happens so often in Carlson's photos. The impression is that of motion and a sense of friction between the real and the imagined.

Stone's presence in this photo, as in many, is extraordinary. Her beautiful face seems involved but at the same time cool, in repose. She's bewitching--a combination of a thawed Morticia Addams and one of the Roche sisters. It might not be possible to take a bad photo of her.
Another remarkable aspect of hese photgraphs is that while Carlson always seems to have a point of view, you never get the sense that he is reaching for any kind of overt symbolism. His pictures aren't forces. Whatever power they have seems natural to them.

As fraught with meaning as the photographs in this wonderful exhibit can be, Carlson isn't afraid to let a cigar be, well, a cigar. --reprinted from The Vermont Times

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