Olivia Parker began her career as a painter, and became involved in photography in 1970. Mostly self-taught, she began working in her studio, constructing images to be photographed. Her first book, Signs of Life, featured simple images seen with keen insight: a perfect white orchid, a pair of ballet slippers, pea pods sitting on a counter. In Eggshells, four cracked white shells rest on a white counter, perfectly lit exposing their vulnerability; inMoon Snails, rows of snails are lined in a box, taking on the appearance of eyes staring out of a cabinet drawer.
Her second book, Under the Looking Glass, featured Parker’s color work and interest in photographic collage, creating narratives about ancestry through the combination of old photographs, blooming flowers and aged fruit. While these images were small in nature (4 x 5″ and 8 x 10″), Parker infused them with a heightened sense of reality that is exaggerated by color and light. As Mark Strand said in his introduction, “Olivia Parker’s photographs contain a remarkable suggestive world of particulars – so suggestive, in fact, that we are not sure if we are looking at strange extensions of reality or colorful projections of dreams.” InThe Eastern Garden, a tattered doll rests on a wood shelf, a coffin of red roses holding it afloat; in The Black Package, a black package tied with red string which sits at the foot of a portrait of a young girl, suggesting an offering to the dead or a remembrance of a young life.
In Parker’s third book, Weighing the Planets, she introduces nautical maps, encyclopedias, glass vials, diaries, metal objects, and flowers to create visual poetry. In these images, Parker creates constructions using natural light which streams onto her set-ups, projecting shadows of figures and objects onto book pages and maps. The effects are eerie; people appear to be floating above the ground, fish swim across the page and wind takes on an animated effect. In At the Edge of the Garden, silhouetted workers appear behind a bed of blooming flowers; in On the Wall, a squatting figure jumps atop a sheet of illegible notepad paper, escaping flying tacks.
In the early 1990s, after almost two decades of working with large format cameras, split-toning and Polaroid materials, Parker turned her attention to the computer, fusing her collage with the new digital era. The resulting images continue to explore real and imagined worlds. In the latest series in the show, Books, Parker photographs an Ethiopian bible, its gazelle skin pages stitched to close natural holes in the hide. Sculptural in presentation, the book takes on other meanings. As Parker states, “A closed book tempts me to open it. As it opens a book may release ideas the same way an open door releases light into a darkened room.” Through her works, the viewer is invited into the shadows of Olivia Parker’s imagination.