New Book Altars Looks Through a Camera Lens Darkly

Darla Teagarden brings ritual to art photography

Darla Teagarden (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Rituals require patience.

It's in their nature, in the requirement to fulfill certain obligations and actions before fulfillment. So Darla Teagarden knew to remain composed while awaiting the delivery of her first collection of her art photography, Altars. "The books are sitting at the FedEx in France," she said when we spoke in early January. "The publisher has his, but he's in Norway. He's like, 'I want to show you so bad, but I want you to have that moment when you open the package.'" She made a comedy 'ugh' sound. "I'm a control freak, so this is the worst."

Courtesy of Darla Teagarden

Control is one descriptor. Experimental precision is the other, and that is what truly defines Teagarden's work. Call her the pagan Cindy Sherman: Like the internationally revered self-portraitist, she is often her own muse and model, but her photography is gothic and fantastical, baroque and intricate, enigmatic and instinctual, playful and morbid. "I take the beauty in occultism, witchcraft, bygone eras, Georges Méliès, and all that's filtered through my eyes."

That means her work has never quite fit in with that of other art photographers. "It's not super-duper dark gothic bodies, but it's not beautiful ladies in Prague or on the moor, and it's not super academic and it's not street." However, all those influences are present to varying degrees, and each element gives each viewer their own point of access. Her work is alchemical in that way, a synthesis of her influences and experiences. "All the best people that I admire, they're nerds. They've nerded out on something so hard that they just want to filter it through their own lens."

Altars the book shares a title with an exhibition she mounted in Seattle in 2015, but this isn't a belated catalog. For her, the word means "something on which to find comfort and ritual." In the context of the book, the word is also a conjuring of the last 13 years of her work, gathered together with the collages and works in process that are elemental to the final image. She described her creative process as "all very ritualistic. It starts with me sketching it, and then I sit on the idea for a little bit, think about what it means to me."

Courtesy of Darla Teagarden

But the creative process for the book has a particular resonance, like a high Mass rather than a rosary. "Not to be overly dramatic," she said, "but it saved my life and my family." Before the book, emotionally, physically, spiritually, she was at a dangerously low ebb. "I was just like, 'OK, get your shit together. You have to stop being a twat' – because that's what I was being. 'You have people who care about you. You have a son. Let's do something about it.' So I just started doing it."

When she began the curation process, she described her desired aesthetic as "folktale, fairy-tale kind of crap, but as it progressed it became so much more personal." She credited her publisher, Russell Joslin of Norway-based Skeleton Key Press, with finding the narrative in her archive. "He's the academic side and, god, I hate to say it but I'm the street kid side. ... The fact that he wanted to take a hold of my stuff was beautiful because I knew he would rein in all the years of mismatched, going-through-phases moments."

“I take the beauty in occultism, witchcraft, bygone eras, Georges Méliès, and all that’s filtered through my eyes.” – Darla Teagarden

Key transitions in Teagarden's creative life have been defined by such moments of external discovery, of others recognizing the undeniability and uniqueness of her work. It's how she's developed advocates and admirers like legendary portrait photographer Dan Winters and musical luminaries Chelsea Wolfe and Exene Cervenka. She began her artistic career working in the Goethe-Institut San Francisco, part of the Federal Republic of Germany's global cultural education mission, but she didn't take the most conventional route there. She was working in a strip club, the infamous Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre, "trying to make ends meet." This was when she first met two academics from the University of California, Berkeley, who would become pivotal in her progress as an artist: theatre professor and cabaret expert Mel Gordon, and Marni Wood, co-founder of Berkeley's dance program and a former soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company. They encouraged her to work with the institute, and while there "I learned so much about theatre and photography and history." She experimented with cabaret, dance, production design, mixed media, and spent some time in New Orleans before finally making her home in Austin and her making her mark as a photographer.

Courtesy of Darla Teagarden

One touchstone for Teagarden's work is the cabinet card. Extremely collectible and often regarded as high Victoriana even though they were produced into the 1900s, they weren't simply family portraits or photographs of businesses. "They were very stodgy and posed and restrained, and I loved that part of it. It makes me feel calm, where I can create one tiny little moment that represents a bigger moment, just like those cards did."

The mounting was a key part of the presentation, often with the photographer's name printed on the card border or details about where the image was taken, why and when and of whom, spilling across the card. They were loaded with symbolism: These were expensive personal treasures, maybe the only photograph the subjects would ever own, and so they become representations of a whole life, or family, or business. In Teagarden's work, text sometimes flows into images, and the line between photograph and mounting vaporizes. Bodies are confined within geometric confines, or crammed into and around awkward spaces, or find comfort in literal nests. Each final work contains a shamanic history, an intoxicating brew of witchcraft and bedtime story, underworld mythology and storybook awe, chaotic dream logic and funeral formality. Teagarden described each piece as "little poems about what I was going through at the moment the photo was taken."

"The next book – if there is a next book – I'm going to be focusing on a more specific kind of content." Well, maybe. She chuckled at the idea that she'll simply set out to do a predefined body of work, rather than let the process become an act of conjuration. Whatever the image, she said, "It always reveals itself to me at the end – which is magical."

At that moment, as the first edition of Altars made its way across the ocean, she was able to appreciate what the ritual of its production has invoked. "It's changed my life," she said, adding that she was astonished by how many people not only contributed to the original Kickstarter, but backed it at the upper tiers. "It was quite lovely to have total strangers throughout all those years come up to me and say, 'That really resonated with me.' In the end, that's what we all want."

Altars by Darla Teagarden (hardcover, 160 pp.) is available at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar, and from Skeleton Key Press.

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Darla Teagarden, Altars, Skeleton Key Press, Photography, Goethe-Institut, Russell Joslin

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