Museum  July 24, 2019  Chandra Noyes

The Delicate Intimacy of Olivia Parker’s Photography

© Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Sea Creatures, 2014. Inkjet print.

Through her carefully crafted photographic compositions, Olivia Parker invites us in to explore the wonders of the natural world with her. In her first comprehensive retrospective of a nearly 50-year career, we see the photographer’s journey from her origins in painting to embracing Photoshop. Throughout the growth and changes of this career, Parker’s keen eye for subtly and detail is present, creating intriguing images that encourage us to dive deep and imagine the world that surrounds them.

Originally trained as a painter, Parker found her way to photography in the late 1970s. Carefully composing the objects she found on a beach near her home, she created apparently simple still lifes, that upon closer inspection reveal to us the complex structures and beauty of the natural world. Through this documentation, Parker shows her fascination with the never-ending mysteries of nature.

© Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Cinquefoil, 1975, printed 1977. Gelatin silver print.

In Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker, now at the Peabody Essex Museum, Parker creates intimate moments through a variety of subject matter. Throughout the exhibition, delicate details, either gorgeously documented in black and white or digitally manipulated, create visual puzzles that unfold before our eyes.

For a recent series documenting her late husband’s decline into dementia at the hands of Alzheimer’s, Parker examined the clues he left behind for himself, in the form of hand-written notes on scraps of paper. Titled Vanishing in Plain Sight, the heart-wrenching collection of notes, photographed in refracting light beams, gives us a visceral sense of his terrifying loss and the everyday struggle to reconstruct his memories, grasping at what is being lost.

Olivia Parker, Honeymoon, 2016. Inkjet print.
© Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Honeymoon, 2016. Inkjet print.

Olivia Parker, Eggs, 2005. Inkjet print.
© Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Eggs, 2005. Inkjet print.

Olivia Parker, Wing 1, 2008. Inkjet print.
© Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Wing 1, 2008. Inkjet print.

Vanishing in Plain Sight documents the ultimate loss of control for Parker and her husband, John, offering a stark contrast to her other works, many of which are painstakingly arranged. Since her days as a painter, Parker has long had an interest in the tradition of still lives. By engaging with this tradition and its place in art history, Parker taps into a rich vein of cultural references that explore the great quandaries of human existence. Composing scenes of objects chosen for their symbolic and visual value, Parker hints at possible narratives, encouraging us to apply our own stories and morals to them.

© Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Still Life with Soap Bubble, 1996. Inkjet print.

Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker, featuring more than 100 photographs, is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 11, 2019.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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