Given time, every landscape heals, covering a trauma so that virtually no record remains of what transpired on it, but sometimes a space can remain “psychologically charged.”
That is the premise of assistant art professor Stephen Chalmers’ photographic work, including his most recent project, “Unmarked.”
The work, which recently received publicity from National Public Radio, The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and Photo ART magazine in Thailand, includes photographs of apparently tranquil, pastoral landscapes. Each photo, however, is accompanied by a simple caption—a victim’s name and age.
The photographs are of areas that police officials refer to as “dump sites,” places where murderers once disposed of the bodies of their victims.
“People don’t consider it, but every day they likely pass hundreds of sites where people have passed away,” said Chalmers, who came to YSU in 2010 after being a professor in Washington State for eight years.
“Unmarked,” a collection of about 250 photographs, is Chalmers’ response to the manner in which the media often presents murder to the masses.
“Often, they elevate the perpetrator and only briefly mention the victims; I never mention the murderers,” he said. “The only contextual information people have is to walk into a gallery and see a series of landscape images. Hopefully, they will find these photographs very beautiful and quiet, then slowly realize by seeing the names and ages of the victims, that the work has a second level to it.”
Chalmers, who plans to publish the photos in book format soon, embarked on this expository journey in 2006 after a hike with a girlfriend through Washington State’s picturesque Tiger Mountain State Forest.
“We had a nice hike; it was a beautiful day and we were falling in love,” he recalls. “When we got back, our friends informed us, ‘That’s where Ted Bundy disposed of his victims heads!’ That additional context changed our understanding of our hike and what was originally a beautiful, romantic day.”
After mulling that experience, Chalmers took an opportunity while visiting Boston later the same year, to photograph murder sites of some of the Boston Strangler’s victims.
“They were beautiful old homes and apartments, but they did not have the same feeling as we experienced on Tiger Mountain, so I started researching more pristine, pastoral locations that might share the aesthetic of the hike,” he said.
His established theme of “what is no longer there” and the landscape’s resultant recovery, has fueled other ventures, which from 2000 to 2005 included recording makeshift memorials to deceased auto accident victims, and most recently, a project documenting vacant lots throughout the Mahoning Valley where family homes once stood.
“You can tell this town used to be very populated and thriving, where with a high school diploma, you could have a middle-class existence,” he said. “When that ended, the town suffered a huge loss. In a way, these images function like the sites in ‘Unmarked’. There is a sort of energy on these sites from what is no longer there.” He hopes to complete the project this fall.
Chalmers earned a BA in fine art photography and a BS in Psychology from the University of Louisville in 1993 and an MFA in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University in 1999. He has works in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Polaroid Collection in Waltham, Mass., and the J. Paul Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, to name just a few. Recent exhibitions of his work include the Kala Art Institute in Berkley, Calif., and the Toot Yung Gallery in Bangkok.
To view Chalmers’ photographs, visit www.stephenchalmers.com.
Story by Robert Merz