Rachel Herman’s The Imp of Love, on display at Light Work Gallery, touches on the aftermath of romantic relationships, on couples who are no longer lovers but strive to be friends. The 19-photo exhibit heads down two roads. It’s direct in its portrayal of interactions between former lovers including tenderness, awkward moments and emotional distance, and indirect in its perspective on relationships.
The project evolved over two years as Herman invited couples to be photographed not in a studio but typically next to the Chicago waterfront. At the photo sessions, Herman offered very few directions; she wanted to create an environment in which her subjects felt comfortable, interacted and expressed themselves.
Her images, in turn, captured scenes from relationships: Carmen and Marissa holding hands, Molly and Drew doing summersaults, Laurie and Annie clearly annoyed with each other, Rochelle and Ben sitting on grass in a pensive mood. Here Herman isn’t trying to define or summarize individual relationships or to suggest why a particular couple broke up. She’s completed a series that relies heavily on non-verbal cues: facial expressions, space between people, and gestures including positioning of hands. She’s emphasizing the complexity of human connections.
In another group of photos, Herman explores open-ended narratives. In “Frank and Roberta,” the woman appears in full view while he’s largely out of the picture. We see only four of his fingers. This image isn’t implying that Frank isn’t worth depicting. Rather, it seems to suggest people may have radically different perspectives on the time when they were lovers.
“Neal and Chris,” meanwhile, shows a scene on a dock. Neal, completely visible and in the photo’s foreground, has his hands behind him. Chris, obscured by the fog, stands a good 10 yards away from his former lover. A third image in this vein, “Loren and Laura,” portrays him running up a slight hillside until he’s not far from her. Will she move toward him? Will they hug? These and other questions remain unanswered. It’s up to viewers to interpret the photos.
That’s very much typical of this exhibition. Herman hasn’t undertaken a research project on relationships in the United States; she’s neither a psychologist nor a sociologist. Similarly, she didn’t do her series to influence her subjects. The show has zero information on which couples became lovers again, stayed friends or severed all contact. Indeed, Herman says nothing about what’s transpired between her and Brant, her former boyfriend.
This isn’t a deficit for the exhibit. Herman isn’t orchestrating a reality series. She’s not only exploring the specific topic of relationships after physical intimacy ends but also touching on the general realm of human relations.
Certainly, doing that within a photo exhibit poses its own set of problems. Put simply, any exhibition of images has to engage viewers on a visual level, and this is very much a nontraditional project. And yet, Herman is clearly up to the task; she’s created an intriguing portfolio. She captures body language, the drama seen in the encounter between Laurie and Annie, the notion that all couples live in a larger world. That notion is communicated most clearly in images such as “Neal and Chris.” At the same time, Herman avoids pat answers or facile conclusions. The Imp of Love is a well-executed show.
In addition to Herman’s work, Light Work is showing a group exhibition featuring images created by seniors and graduate students in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, Transmedia Department. The public can view both exhibits during a gallery reception on Thursday, Jan. 28, 5 to 7 p.m. Light Work, located at 316 Waverly Ave. on the SU campus, is also open Sundays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Both shows wrap up on March 12; for more information, call 443-1300.