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by Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
“All human beings are dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” – Jack Kerouac
Looking inward and allowing our sub-conscious to bubble up through our dreams and memories can reveal the essential humanity in each of us. Maggie Steber is widely known for her documentary work around the world, most notably her long-term interest photographing in Haiti. In recent work titled The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, she is making pictures that mine our common humanity through deeply psychological and introspective images. An exhibition of this work will be on view at the Leica Gallery Boston through July 8, 2018.
Employing such digital apps as Hipstamatic to process her images, Steber has created a kind of visual version of the “magical realism” literary genre to probe broad themes of life, love and death. In several images, for example, water plays a large role. In Ophelia we see a quiet lake at dusk, the darkening sky reflecting below a bank of shadowy trees in the background, and a female figure floating in the foreground. The title implies death, yet water can be life-giving. Man Born From Blossoms is an arresting image of bearded male face that catches the viewer’s gaze as he emerges from water surrounded by vibrant flowers. In Dark Figure from a Dream of Caravaggio, a man cloaked in ominous mystery is reflected in a shallow puddle, at once ambiguous and oddly humorous when one realizes that the artist has presented the scene upside down, with the figure right side up.
Enclosed rooms offer psychological tension in two images that reference the painter Edward Hopper in the title. In Edward Hopper’s Bedroom, a dancer is facing away from the viewer, lying prone on a bed reading a book, her feet raised, and still wearing her toe shoes. The other, Edward Hopper’s Living Room, depicts a female figure seated with a hand to her chin, gazing out of the picture frame with what could be a skull lurking nearby. The source of light in both of these pictures is unknown, which emphasizes the confinement of the space, yet quietly illuminates soft human gestures with enigmatic poignancy. In contrast, the use of a large window in Longing, combined with unkempt bed linens and silhouetted figure, confers a cavernous, palpable loneliness.
Steber’s garden is presented through still-life. Flora From the Garden and Queen of the Dead Lizard’s Army are large, square, and simply beautiful. As with all still-life, they are a reminder— a momento mori— of the transient nature of all living things. Skeleton Crew, Dead Lizards Army is an especially good example, with several delicate skeletons placed carefully on a log, giving the sense that the smallest whisper of wind might blow these feather-like bones away.
Two of Steber’s strongest images pulse with love. The Sacred Heart of an Innocent Boy (detail in feature image and full image below) and The Woeful Tale of the Held Heart use the color red, dramatic light, and lush romanticism to express emotional desire. This show is a satisfying journey through the eyes of a contemplative and imaginative artist whose well-known work exploring and documenting the problems of the world have doubtless enriched her understanding of human nature. By turning inward and integrating her own dreams and experiences she has created a layered, personal body of work to add to an impressive career as a photographic storyteller.
Maggie Steber: The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma
On view through July 8, 2018
Leica Store and Gallery
74 Arlington Street