Stilled life: Peress sifts through the ashes

Photograph by Gilles Peress. © Gilles Peress.
Photograph by Gilles Peress. © Gilles Peress.

“The thing that gets me are the socks in the shoes,” remarked a Look3 visitor, his laminated yellow festival pass dangling from his neck as he contemplated photographer Gilles Perres’ black-and-white diptych of an executed man, installed on the floor in the middle of Peress’ exhibition, “Natures Mortes.”

“Success, Mr. Peress.” I thought, having just read about the piece in the show’s catalog. What struck Peress about this fallen man was how even in the face of death he had removed his shoes and neatly placed his socks inside them, either in the belief he would somehow survive or in one last gesture toward ordering life.

Peress’ ability to draw viewers’ attention to such details, forcing his audience to grapple with Big Questions (capital B, capital Q), is what makes his work so powerful. “Natures Mortes,” which translates to “still life” in English, presents a series of oversized black-and-white images that document the aftermath of the Bosnian War. The exhibition moves like a dark poem from shots of damaged structures, to images of destroyed memorabilia (the things that once gave personal lives meaning–family photos, books, etc.), to photographs of the slain, often no longer individually differentiated, as they decay into the landscape.

Each photograph, riveting in its visual content, prompts the viewer to ask, “What awful thing happened here?” Peress opts for high contrast in some compositions (e.g. the burned book), but his images of mud-encrusted corpses piled in mass graves verge on being monochromatic abstracts. Here the details of the individual dead– an outstretched hand, a head thrown back in anguish– surface only slowly and dramatically.

Elsewhere Peress holds the viewer’s attention by creating images that puzzle the eye. In the floor diptych, the shoulders of the dead man, his bound hands stretched on the ground over his head, abuts his naked feet jutting from his pants legs, his shoes placed neatly beside them. The odd, physically not-right juxtaposition prods viewers to look longer and absorb the telling, emotionally wrenching details of the man’s last moments.

Peress writes in his artist’s statement that “still life” has the double meaning of “no life” and “a category of artistic representation.” In this body of work, however, “still life” carries a third meaning. By observing war’s violent destruction so closely, Peress forces us to consider what came before, so that even in mortality, through the photographic record, there is still life.

Gilles Peress’ exhibition, “Natures Mortes,” is on view as part of Look3, Festival of the Photograph through June 28 at the temporary gallery at Michie at 7th (entry on 7th St. at the back corner of the Michie Building). 977-3687.