More Than Just Photos

Posted on 31 July 2008

John Messinger doesn’t want to talk about his photographs, about their locales or their subjects; he wants the narrative of his work to remain a mystery.
“I can talk about each place, about what makes it unique, about the culture,” said the 24-year-old photographer.  “But I think the place is unimportant.”
Messinger’s belief is that by removing the story behind the image, the viewer is able to identify with it more easily and see it the same way he does, as representative of the overall human experience.  His first solo exhibition, “Chasing the Wind: Underfoot, Overhead and All Around,” opened at Romany Kramoris Gallery last weekend, and is his attempt to capture the “serendipitous moments” that best reflect humanity, like a young boy holding up a fresh caught fish or two kites hovering over an old man’s head.
“In a way, we’re all flying a kite, or catching a fish, or chasing the wind,” said Messinger.
The images, 16 in all, were culled from trips to Salvador de Baia on the northeast coast of Brazil and to Court Vila, Vanuatu in the South Pacific. All of the photos, whether of a goat sitting amidst a dilapidated building or two kids lying down in the surf, have a child-like innocence to them. Children, Messinger mentioned, live life the way he would like to, without fear and expectation.
His exhibit is unique in that the photos have no titles and his signature is nowhere to be found. Without the small sign taped to the gallery’s window, no one would even know it was his work. That though, is exactly what he was shooting for.
“A very small percentage of the world’s population looks at the name under a photograph when it appears in a newspaper,” he said. “In knowing that, I realize it’s the recording of human history, or human experience, that is important. It’s not my name or my existence. It’s not about me.”
His photos have a quiet, spiritual aspect to them. The silhouette of a man’s head in the foreground, while a soccer ball is suspended in mid air above, appears almost staged. A young boy carrying a stick twice his size on the beach seems so serious, the viewer is pulled into the moment, hoping he doesn’t drop it. They are all Messinger’s way of trying to portray more than simply a snapshot in time.
“There’s a guy, Wendell Berry,” said Messinger. “I’m paraphrasing, but he said that if we were to think about the human experience — history, evolution, the whole thing— as a container, most photos act as relics or ornaments within the container. But there are a select few who are able to create windows and doors that look through the container or beyond it or deeper into it, however you want to look at it. What I’m attempting is to create windows and doors.”
Messinger’s mother is Colombian and he spent part of his childhood growing up there before returning to the East End, eventually graduating from the Ross School. He said perhaps he’s tapping into that part of his childhood with this exhibit.
“Maybe that’s why I find myself in these warm places with warm people,” he said. “It does bring me back to a place in my past.”
Though not something he would readily admit to himself, he said, his travels might also be a type of spiritual quest.
“I had to have a friend point it out to me, but there is a purity there when it comes to living, like Dante’s ‘Paradisio.’ There’s a purity of priorities. That’s in a way what we’re all striving for. In our own way, we’re all searching for enlightenment.”
Chasing the Wind: Underfoot, Overhead and All Around is on view at Romany Kramoris Gallery, 41 Main Street, through August 7.

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