BRATTLEBORO — Most likely, the name Zachary Stephens has a familiar ring if you've read the Brattleboro Reformer at all this past decade. Or if you were a student taking classes at the In-Sight Photography Project. Or if you knew someone who was.
Stephens, the Reformer's principal photojournalist for several years, has served as program director at In-Sight over the past decade.
Two years ago, he decided to get his master's degree. He pursued this goal while raising his family and still working at In-Sight - something, he says, he is passionate about.
The group of large-format photographs Stephens is showing at the Dianich Gallery, “Are We There Yet?,” is the culmination of his MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Of the distance he's traveled photographically these past two years, Stephens says, “I've broken the photojournalistic rules, the idea that you can 'capture reality,' that there's an objective reality. Studying photographic theory breaks down that idea.”
Stephens now observes that “there's always an influence of the author in the image.”
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Stephens' course work at VCFA exposed him to the photographs of modern masters who have stretched the bounds of their discipline.
Sally Mann, Tina Barney, and Gregory Crewdson (who was the subject of a documentary, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, shown at the Brattleboro Film Festival in 2013) are some whom he names as influences on his present body of work.
All these photographers focus on their children or domesticity in one way or another. Stephens' work similarly focuses on fatherhood.
Catherine Dianich, owner, manager, and curator of Dianich Gallery, says she was attracted to Stephens' works for their “intimate family perspective.”
While she relates to work about family, usually motherhood, she called it “a privilege” to have a show of work that reveals the perspective of a father.
“They are one person's experience, yet there are universal truths,” she added.
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Stephens tells me it all started while driving home with his kids, who were “screaming.”
Trying not to feel overwhelmed, he flashed on a scene from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, in which one of the turtles is buried in a pile of garbage and all you can see is his hand reaching out. He felt like that, he said.
He started to conceptualize a photograph: It would be him buried under a mountain of his children's stuffed toys. Just his eyes would be visible.
Stuffies thus became the first photograph in this series of family life. It became a collaboration and the first big step away from his more traditional photographic practices.
His children, of course, contributed the “stuffies.” His wife, Michelle, clicked the shutter, which he calls his “transition from total control.” This led to a deeper inquiry: “What does it mean to make a photo and be the author? It was incredibly liberating.”
While Stuffies is a single-frame photograph, Playhouse - with Stephens emerging like a monster-giant from his daughter's molded-plastic playhouse as a small child looks out its mini window and an older child looks on - was his first to composite multiple frames with the camera set up on a timer.
Technically, the compositing of the photographs is extraordinarily smooth and accomplished. It is a true tour de force.
By compositing, says Stephens, he can use the lighting he'd like, and “be with the image over time,” which allows him to try different techniques.
And, without the pressure of capturing the moment, by being able to contemplate the children's photos, it allows him, says Stephens, to “become the child.”
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The photographs are large, 24 x 36 inches. A vivid, all-over focus compresses the space, contributing to a sense of unease - claustrophobia, even. The look of the images - ramped-up color, flatness, ultra-clarity - could remind one of an advertisement, not a coincidence.
The visual impact of the work is itself a comment on modern family life - the hype, the “supposed to” versus the reality.
Additionally, all the accumulated “stuff” that is a part of modern family life is as much the subject of these photographs as the children, the wife-mother, the husband-father. The non-distinction builds to a surreal effect.
But Stephens emphasizes the photographic explorations “didn't happen in a void.” His reading, he feels, added another layer of social perspective to the personal images.
One important book for Stephens was The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz, which, he says, “deconstructs the American family and modern fatherhood. It showed me how my life has been stereotyped by media and pop culture.”
The book shows up as a wry autobiographical comment, in several of the pictures. It is perhaps not surprising (though it is refreshing) that a project inspired by an image from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film would contain notes of irony.
In Laundry Day, for example, a baby sleeps precariously on the edge of a couch, while a doll happily lounges in the baby sleeper. A big pile of laundry towers alongside the sleeping baby, and children play outside in the street. And, oh yes, a cat has climbed into the laundry basket on the floor with clothes in it.
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Ironically, but also discomfortingly, the photographs are decidedly not sentimental or romantic. In fact, they are, the artist confesses, a way of “acting out [his] questions and anxiety about being a dad.”
That includes “the bad parenting thing,” as Stephens puts it.
In BBQ, a barbeque fire blazes out of control while the dad relaxes nearby with a beer. In Breakfast Time, cereal spills all over a table that also contains an apple core and a piece of pizza.
The tableaus will be the preponderance of the work at Dianich Gallery, but Are We There Yet? will also include several more traditional single-frame photographs.
These tend to be quieter moments that, Stephens says, “give another layer.”
In one, Elephant Park, the children are intently playing on a slide and a horse-swing; Dad watches dutifully with the youngest snuggled to him in a cloth carrier.
While many of the images may convey anxiety around fatherhood, there is also a generous helping of wonder.
The fact that these feelings find room to coexist in Stephens' work is, for me, a good part of their seductive power.