Esther Parada

N.A.M.E. Gallery

When the Museum of Modern Art did its “Big Pictures by Contemporary Artists” exhibition a few years ago, Esther Parada’s Past Recovery, 1979, was almost the only image that deserved the wall space it took up. Since I remembered the piece vividly 1 was glad that N.A.M.E. Gallery decided this past spring to honor Parada with the mid-career retrospective it gives each year to a Chicago artist. The show revealed how Parada’s work both led up to and, unfortunately, has since departed from this central picture, which remains her masterpiece. It is still the pinnacle of her career, the only vantage point from which you can see her work as a whole and trace the development that began with early work done in 1964–66, when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia.

These street portraits of Bolivian Indians show that, from the first, Parada’s grasp of photography has been more intellectual than intuitive. Her recognition that the description of detail is the essence of the medium took a distinctively conscious, programmatic form. The patchwork on a blouse or the way eyeglass frames perch on a broken nose emerge from her dark prints like detached memories from a general forgetfulness. The pictures look as if they were made to be a kind of self-discipline, a mnemonic device to help Parada hold onto the past. And in a subsequent project contained in this show, Adam, 1974–76, the matrix of memory that she was using photography to construct literally began to take shape as a grid. In this compilation of pictures of her infant son, the formalism of certain straight photographs—the shadow the playpen’s mesh casts on the boy’s head, or the square of sunlight in which he’s caught in the yard—is transformed to diagonal rows of prints on cloth and arranged as if a set of tiny pillows. Making photographs into these kitsch objects was a way to acknowledge how sentimentality can corrupt memory. Formalizing the images was a means to guard against letting this happen.

Parada’s mixture of the personal with an almost theoretical, anthropological concept of memory achieved its ultimate expression in Past Recovery. In this piece she collaged together 68 years’ worth of family photographs, so that dozens of prints formed a single 12-by-8-foot image. Here, in a scene where one group of forebears is holding a banquet, another generation appears in a mirror on the wall. The transparent outlines of a superimposed child blend with a crease in a snapshot from a different era that becomes, in Parada’s copy enlargement, part of the texture of experience. The reverberation seems endless between Parada’s present and the family’s past, between her own photograph and the cumulative album—the collective consciousness on which it’s based. Memory transforms itself into history.

And yet, Past Recovery was represented in this retrospective only in very fragmentary form. One had to imagine the full picture from a few working prints Parada still has in her possession, which were put up here and there, wherever they belonged, in an otherwise empty grid. Even in this diminished version, the piece retained its power. Still, it is a piece that has largely disappeared, as if all but forgotten, from among the artifacts of Parada’s career. The truth is that her work has now pretty much left it behind. Memory Work, a piece done the following year, is similar in format and intent, and another entitled Site Unseen, 1976–86, is also concerned with the relationship of the personal to the historical. But these later pieces are typical of the way that intellectualism has now taken over completely: the personal has been replaced by the ideological. The new imagery seems modeled on the sort of installations used for political education in revolutionary Latin American countries, where Parada has recently spent time. This work draws only upon the public experience of the political reality contained by photojournalism and policy studies. However great its faith in the radical left may be, I can’t help feeling that it represents a loss of faith in the efficacy of photographs themselves. If so, the loss is ours as well as Parada’s.

Colin Westerbeck