Forget what you’ve heard: every picture does not tell a story. Case in point — a collection of black-and-white photographs by Ralph Burns, currently on exhibit at Pink Dog Creative, though both disquieting and frequently heartbreaking, reveals only half the tale.
Take the photo of a weary-looking woman in what looks like a hotel room, having a cigarette beside a made double bed in which lies a smaller-than-life wooden Elvis. Her silent companion is tidily wrapped in a blanket. The image is full of minutiae — the curious shadows on the window, the woman’s intent but slightly incredulous gaze — but the motivation is left to the viewer to puzzle out.
There’s the man crawling, penitent, beside the emaciated corpse of a small dog; screaming street preachers and a stentorian Billy Graham; converts shivering and weeping on the cusp of baptism; workers with pails trudging by a mural of Che Guevara, a young Buddhist monk, a pair of priests (Ethiopian and Santerían), and the late Princess Diana. The collection of nearly 60 photos are set in a variety of locations — Cuba, Mexico, New Orleans, Jerusalem, Graceland, Tibet, and even Asheville.
This is Burns’ first hometown show since 1994. But he has known Asheville from a time long before that, from an era when it would be unrecognizable to many current residents. Now a thriving business and arts center, Asheville was once an urban desert (35 years ago, downtown was a ghost town — the Asheville Art Museum was housed in a Montford residence).
Burns and his former wife Brigid, also an artist/photographer, moved here in the mid 1970s. Their dream was to support a creative life by doing custom darkroom printing. For $60 a month they rented a small upstairs space on Wall Street and put in a darkroom. In response to the absence of a local contemporary photographic arts scene, the couple also opened a gallery in their shop. They showed innovative work by regional, national and international artists, sharing a vision that acknowledged no geographical boundaries.
Iris Photographic Printworks has since moved around, changed its name in slight variations, and expanded to carry film, chemicals and cameras, and offer one-hour film processing. Iris Photo + Digital Imaging, the current incarnation, continues to serve the region with a nod to the digital age.
Burns is old school, though — and his personality was formed in the Deep South. Born and raised a short ferry ride away from New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, as a college student Burns found a stimulating harbor at the historic Napoleon House Bar/Café (named after a plot to rescue Napoleon from exile in St. Helena and bring him to New Orleans). After graduating with a degree in Political Science from Louisiana State University, he went into the Air Force for officer and pilot training.
But he passed on commercial opportunities, preferring to cultivate his interest in photography.
Burns learned to shoot in the social-documentary style of Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Manuel Rivera-Ortiz and Mary Ellen Mark, et al., occupying a ground somewhere between detached observer and fellow pilgrim. He doesn’t arrive at an event with a jumble of cameras dangling from his neck, juggling light meters and other equipment, because he’s found that simple gear is less intrusive. His camera is a Leica M6 rangefinder with a favored 35mm lens; he shoots with Kodak Tri-X film. Filters? “Never!” says the largely self-taught photographer. “I’m paying for really good glass in the lens.”
And he has a compassionate eye. Selections from his series “How Great Thou Art (1978-2007),” a study of the Graceland faithful, reveal intimacy with his subjects, and trust gained by care. The tension in the work comes from the precarious balance between the pious and the obsessive, because the path between the two is so narrow. Burns’ subjects may approach a statue of the Virgin Mary and a statue of Elvis with a similar reverence.
Likewise, it seems, with Burns. Passion and distance is the discipline of a good photographer, as well as a sense of humor. Burns reveals an intriguing astronomical fact, alluded to in the title of his exhibit. “There’s a gravity anomaly in space toward which everything is pulled, called the ‘Great Attractor,'” says Burns. “This is located near the Constellation Norma, and we are speeding there at about 400 miles a second.”