Charlie and I call ourselves “motherless children.” And that’s the beginning of how this work came to be. We lost our moms early and tragically. Adopted as an infant, Charlie was finding that unknown part of who he is, when we first became classmates. And I was going back to the beach of my childhood, shooting film in a cheap plastic camera, and remembering. That shared interest in how we experience a sense of origin, and in what it means more broadly that people always live in the middle, has been the basis for our collaboration.
This work is about place, in an obvious sense. The barrier islands are unique environments, which unexpectedly endure at the convergence of many forces. But for us the work is an attempt to relate the surprising and paradoxical story of a place that’s incessantly torn-down and re-built, but whose identity is compatible with, rather than opposed to, dynamism. It’s about a place whose permanence arises from mutability. That paradox is the metaphorical basis for much of the meaning of the work.
It just wouldn’t be possible to overstate the scope of life activity on the islands. There is life everywhere. And the context for it is a volatility in the elements that’s breath-taking: the sand forms, the water, the ever-changing light, storms, and heat that makes the humid air vibrate. We see photographic subjects as central to an image, on the one hand, but also as disempowered in another sense. Our subjects are manifestations of the system itself.
Navigating through Pine Island Sound, one day, we spotted an unusually elevated and barren key upon which stood a magnificently sculpted, weather beaten, but not broken, ancient tree. It looked like it held sway over the hundreds of white pelicans that migrate there every year from the northern interior. Intrigued, we disembarked. Following the roots of the old tree, we suddenly realized that we were treading on the ruins of a native shell mound. And we froze up. We set down all our gear, and just stood there…sweating, looking, being still in the quiet of sacred ground. There’s something powerful in those native Calusa sites from so many hundred years ago, and we stood there to let all that accumulated time, and the weight of the shells, and the lost voices, and a good sort of spookiness, wash over us. Our work is about origins, and going home. We have a middle-life perspective now on how mythologies of belonging are interconnected with our total experience. We want the photographs to show what it means to play an ephemeral part in the story of nature.
In the field, and in the studio, we like to use the Old English word Middangeard. That’s what people called this place a thousand years ago — middle world. For us the term is a reconnection with a time when people felt the great, magical forces all around us. People have forgotten the awe of being small. This work tries to depict antecedents and dependents in a way that will let the different voices of the photograph re-teach us. Maybe intermediation isn’t really the way things tell our story, but the way we tell the system’s story.
We’re Magical Realists. Life is emphatically magical; the living world is unequivocally a mystery that ought to humble us, and be our joy. This work seeks to see through the surface, and get at the original building blocks, to capture a sense of something half-seen, to suggest the un-seeable master blueprint that sits behind it all, and would explain the connection of all things, if we could only read it. The system wants to communicate with us, to tell us things we forgot a long time ago. It wants us to come home, to be welcomed, be reintegrated. And the secret code is that you have to go forward to find the beginning, that you have to put love in all the places where you wish you could go back and do life over, freeze it, and be in it for all time.
An essential choice in this work has been to embrace risky process. The wet plate process is sensitive…to temperature, vibration, and the vagaries of our outdoor darkroom tent…and as such it’s the process-manifestation of the metaphorical meaning of the work. It’s so in the sense that it’s uncontrollable, and therefore an agent for the introduction of paradox into our work. And it’s also so in the sense that we seek to approach the spiritual power of the natural world through relinquishment instead of intended dominance. Our best work always has imperfections. In fact, that word is wrong. The heart is in the made image; relinquishment unlocks the truth. The world around us is the output of a wild and magical system. We’re trying to glimpse the system itself, not the output, and that’s why an old, half-forgotten, chance-ridden process is the only way to go.
Our chosen medium is hybrid. We capture our images in wet plate collodion, scan the plates and print 50”x40” archival pigment prints; thereby, utilizing the process of 19th century photography, implementing a 20th century camera-less workflow, ultimately producing a 21st century image of a forever timeless subject.
Where the Light Enters
Characterized by the dynamic nature of the land-sea interaction, barrier islands are places with many shape narratives, and inversions. A barrier island is ephemeral, an instance of simultaneity, above and below what we call the surface. Mangroves straddle these mirror worlds, walking on water, making something out of nothing. Light rushes through every keyhole and seam in palm forest canopies, which is another sort of inundation. The islands are always being eroded and redeposited, their permanence rooted in impermanence, existing where many forces converge. Everything residual from the land and the sea is ultimately represented there. And in that history, that recording, that perpetual washing over of it all, beautiful things and ugly things, there is a prelapsarian magic, which is always starting over, clean.
This work is metaphorical. It’s about demarcation and intermediation. It’s about origins, and going back.
It’s about the paradoxes of individual experience within the enormous, scary, and magical system.
The point of the horizon is that you can’t get there. All of our human strivings find their counterweight in that long perspective, reconciled by degrees of scale. There’s nothing to touch in the great clouds rising over the Gulf, purple and blue underneath, and clay-orange in the final hour of day; that’s not the point. The system never turns its back on us. We were still part of the magical web of life, the tides, the seen and unseen wheeling of everything in the sky, which is us moving, not it, even in the most harried days of our immediate living. That’s what the horizon and light on the water are all about. Remember how small you are, and let that memory become gratitude.
The purpose of this work is to take a leap of faith with our process. It’s about letting the components of the process be agents of authorship. It’s about letting them be what they really are — substrates and solvents, mechanisms of revealing and resolving, fibers and light-adhering metal, and varnish which either covers and preserves the image or smears and un-does it, however chance will have it. The vagaries of the process, in turn, are how we tell the true story of the change engulfing our world.
Intrusion is undermining the coastal forests of the Southeast. Salt with its sharp chemistry is coming up through the sand soils, and these fortresses of the natural system, which guarded the land, and held the stitched margin of the sea and the barrier islands together, are giving way. Soon they’ll be erased places. Their oaken-armed and pine-tall blazonry has an altered meaning now. What was once just the world, the beautiful system that we were a part of, and with which we shared an immediate life, is turning into a memory. It’s a record. Reading it is becoming the story of what was, not the telling of what is. All structure is the same, the natural system and the electrical life of the cellular world underneath our consciousness. The forces that alter it are the same too. The system is us, which is something we forgot on the long journey into the labyrinth we called enlightenment. What we do to it we have done to ourselves. And that’s called a self-portrait.
Dwell is an ancient word; just to say it seems like crossing time. Maybe a thousand years ago being in one place felt wrong. To tarry, perhaps, was a dangerous indolence, to linger a kind of going astray, like we might revert back to something. We were keeping busy. Dwelling is something we can learn from nature. The water and sky, lightness and darkness, they abide in our places with us, always. They dwell. And in their dwelling nothing can be shut-out or shut-in, because place is the totality of all that.
Cecilia A. Montalvo
Cecilia was born and raised in Miami, and today lives in Atlanta. After graduating from the University of Virginia, she worked at The Phillips Collection, Smithsonian Magazine, and for Harvard University at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC. She holds an MFA in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. McCullers and Montalvo are represented in Atlanta by Jackson Fine Art
Charles A. McCullers
Charlie is a working photographer from Atlanta. Opening a commercial studio in 1985, he has produced numerous award-winning advertising/collateral/exhibition campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, professional athletic teams and international arts organizations. McCullers matriculated from the University of Georgia with a BFA in photographic design and holds an MA and MFA in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. McCullers and Montalvo are represented in Atlanta by Jackson Fine Art.