Rich Copley: James Baker Hall photo exhibit reveals another side of Kentucky writer

Herald-Leader culture columnistMarch 8, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    'The Mirror's Beveled Edge'

    What: Exhibit of photographs by James Baker Hall.

    When: Through July 31

    Where: UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital's West Gallery, 800 Rose St. Best accessed by using parking garage at Limestone and Transcript Ave.

    Admission: Free

    Book: The Mirror's Beveled Edge postcard publication is available at The Morris Book Shop, Black Swan Books, Institute 193 and Institute193.bigcartel.com.

    Learn more: Jamesbakerhall.com.

Hanging an exhibit in the University of Kentucky's Albert B. Chandler Hospital is an inherently public task.

The hospital is, of course, open 24/7, and its exhibition spaces are corridors that people travel day and night. There is no shutting the doors and papering the windows while a new exhibit goes up.

"I get a lot of time with people when I'm installing or de-installing a show," says Phillip March Jones, temporary exhibitions coordinator with UK's Arts in Healthcare program. "Everyone wants to stop and talk to me."

While installing the current show, The Mirror's Beveled Edge, an exhibit of photographs by the late James Baker Hall, Jones heard one observation repeatedly.

"A lot of people were surprised that these images were all made by the same person," Jones says.

Indeed, the installation shows many facets of the photography of Hall, an artist whom many Kentuckians know best as a writer.

Hall, who died in 2009, was a contemporary of a who's who of Kentucky literary figures, including Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason and Gurney Norman. He directed the creative writing program at UK from 1973 to 2003. But he also was a photographer since age 11, and he worked with luminaries including Ralph Eugene Meatyard and was a contributing editor for Aperture magazine.

This winter, Jones has put together two representations of Hall's photography, both titled The Mirror's Beveled Edge. One is that exhibit of 57 photographs that hangs in the 170-foot corridor along the hospital's emergency room. The other is a book or "postcard publication" of Hall's photos. There is overlap in the images in the two presentations, but there are some differences.

The exhibit, for instance, omits some images because of size or content (nudity, etc.). It also is grouped around distinct styles in Hall's work, including photo collages he made and photographed, and black-and-white portraits he took of colleagues including his wife, author Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.

"There's so much praise and acclaim and scholarship around him as this Kentucky writer," Jones says. "But as an image maker and someone profoundly interested in making pictures, there really isn't that much out there."

Jones sees shared themes in Hall's writing and photography, including a love of nature and Kentucky, and an attention to detail.

There is one section of the exhibit called "Dividing Ridge," referring to the title of one of Hall's poems. But overall, Jones says, he stayed away from pairing writing with images, unlike the way many exhibits of writer-image-makers go.

In the images, viewers can see Hall grappling with various issues, particularly the suicide of his mother when he was a boy. That particularly comes through in the section called "Orphan in the Attic," photos that Hall made by cutting up images from family albums and placing them in increasingly intricate settings, "the sort of thing people would now do in PhotoShop. But he did it as this real, almost mechanical thing and then took a picture of it."

His nature pictures are often blurred or focused on specific objects — which Jones says is a unique approach among photographers in this region.

"He turns this beautiful, pastoral landscape we have in Kentucky into something that's a little bit off," he says. "It's a bit of a different perspective."

And then there are the portraits of some of Kentucky's best-known cultural figures, including author Mason with a seemingly disinterested cat, and artist Bob Morgan looking a little uncomfortable in a circle of light. Jones says Hall was able to get unique portraits from these people because they knew and trusted him.

As the exhibit was assembled and opened, Jones knew he was dealing with a subject beloved by family, friends, colleagues and students left behind when he died in 2009.

But Jones also says that in assembling a comprehensive look at Hall's photography, it was good that he wasn't part of Hall's circle.

"I think coming into the project and not having a very personal relationship to him afforded me a kind of fresh look at the work, for better or worse," Jones says. "I wasn't tinted with any kinds of feeling about him. I was looking at all the work, most of it for the first time. I was bringing my own eye and experience to the work, but very little of that was personal or based on any deep knowledge of him as an individual."

Jones says he entered and came out of the project with immense respect for and understanding of Hall in all his endeavors.

"You know a Jim Hall photograph when you see it, just like you know a poem by him when you read it," Jones says. "You recognize him in the work."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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