Picturing the Invisible II/III
12/19/13 - 2/21/14Les Mastenbrook—Multiple Angles at Once
Why is photography, like the other arts, [a] kind of intoxication? And a quieter pleasure too, so that occasionally photographers discover tears in their eyes for the joy of seeing. I think it is because they’ve known a miracle. …and as is the way with unexpected gifts, the surprise carries an emotional blessing.
Robert Adams, 1994
I want to bring my vision down to the bare bones. I want to hit the bottom of the creative sea and then build up from there. I want to go for the complete and total destruction of my idea, then put back only the best pieces.
Les Mastenbrook, 2002
The […] spaces [Emmet Gowin’s photography] creates wouldn’t be seen if he wasn’t there to see them. Which is how I feel about my pictures. I’m the only person who sees this stuff.
Les Mastenbrook, 2002
Multiple Angles at Once, the second of three exhibitions in the Picturing the Invisible series, is a restive, though celebratory, gathering of pictures. While it is always important to provide our visitors with some background regarding the art on display, in this exhibition we are also obliged to raise awareness of a singular tragedy. The artist, Les Mastenbrook, a 2000 Cambridge School of Weston alumna, died prematurely, leaving behind an unfinished life’s work—a small but carefully selected body of photographs from which the present exhibition is assembled.
On June 17, 2006, just two years after graduating cum laude from Maryland Institute College of Art, Cambridge, MA-born Leslie Walker Mastenbrook died in a car wreck while traveling through Cheyenne, Wyoming. En route to her childhood home, after having established herself in Oakland, CA for just over a year, she was between jobs and wanted to see the country before she visited her mother in Concord, MA. Mastenbrook was resting in the backseat of her car when her co-driver and close friend lost control of the vehicle and rolled it off the road. She died at the scene of the accident; the driver survived.
In a year when the Thompson Gallery’s thematic inquiry celebrates the medium of photography via posthumously acclaimed photographers, it is important to acknowledge Les Mastenbrook’s maturity as an image-maker. While Mastenbrook did not possess the level of acclaim the other two photographers in the series have, she received awards for her work each year she was a student of the medium, beginning with her senior year of high school. Despite Mastenbrook’s barely emergent status as a professional artist at the time of her passing, she had already established a keen interest in underappreciated subject material. While we don’t know where Les’ work might have gone, what we have of her work rounds out our series in important ways. Each photographer in the series illuminates something different about how photography can expose the invisible: a scientific approach, as in the case of Harold Edgerton (fall exhibition), and a voice for social justice, as in the case of Milton Rogovin (spring exhibition). The photographs of Les Mastenbrook, or Les, as she was known to us during her student days at CSW, are more interpersonal and intrapersonal in nature. Often existential and autobiographical, the lens from which Les made her pictures is rich in ways all her own.
Multiple Angles at Once highlights three distinct periods of time in the artist’s short-lived career: two early self-portraits made when the artist was a high school student; two key bodies of work from the artist’s undergraduate years at MICA; and a selection of work from the two years Les supported herself as a professional artist. The title of the artist’s show is taken from a note found beneath a photograph in her Holga Notebook—the main focus of her work from her college graduation until her death:
This is a perfect example of how I see the world. Double exposed, multiple angles at once.
A sobering example of how to seize the day, Multiple Angles at Once hauntingly exemplifies the series title, Picturing the Invisible, in a few important ways. Les consistently explored subjects that are easily ignored or easily overlooked; literally, she brought invisible ideas to light. Les also loved to juxtapose and superimpose, or rather, she tended to double expose her negatives using a Holga camera. The Holga is an inexpensive, toy camera known for its light leaks, which offer unexpected flares upon the negatives it holds. Les owned about three, and she covered the light leaks with electrical tape, which gave her the ability to select the places from which light emitted. Beyond the literal juxtapositions of multiple angles overlapping, however, there is a sense of multiplicity in Les’ subjects. Viewers feel that the images are about more than what they literally depict.
Cases in point include Les’ Backyard/Back Alley Series (checklist numbers 3-5 & 7-11), her senior thesis work at MICA entitled In My Life (checklist number 6), and her Garbage Can Series, which is a dedicated focus in her MICA Notebook (checklist number 13), located in the vitrine display at the room’s center. For Les, carpe diem was a concept equivalent to finding anything overlooked and considering it from multiple points of view and at great length. Simple things can be deceiving because we think we know them. On the surface of things we see a building facade, but as Les points out in her statement for her Backyard/Back Alley Series:
Whereas the front yard is dressed up and presented to the world as an image of what could be, backyards show things the way they are.
In her photo journal during her junior year at MICA, Les wrote, Digital is to traditional photos as cropping is to the decisive moment. Les
was always poised to find material that could be considered from more than one vantage. She was well known among her peers, family and friends as an advocate for the underdog.
’ photographic explorations were of rarely captured things or otherwise transient moments, her subjects tend to stay with her viewers, creep back into their thoughts, and work on several levels simultaneously. In My Life
, for example, appears on first glance to be about a college party atmosphere. Look closely, read the individual titles of the twenty-nine mounted photographs, and then try to recognize Les’ decisive moments. The moments she captured were spread over many days and months and have the feel of the everyday. As her mother Sharon Mastenbrook points out, She liked ordinary things.
With editorial selectiveness, Les
’ work illuminates transitional spaces and moments in time, transforming what is easily overlooked into iconic remembrances.
For Les’ Holga series, she photographed the countryside, things, people and places she traveled to over the two years after college leading up to her death. She made many of these photographs as a passenger in a car, in which she tried to capture the fleeting moments of things most people do not even look at, let alone see. What we are left with are her decisive selections of those moments in time.
Photo teachers Tony Loreti and Anne Rearick, with the support of Gallery Director Todd Bartel, thoughtfully selected this grouping of photographs. Rather than send out negatives to be printed, the curators limited themselves to what prints were already available, by virtue of what Les had printed herself. This in turn was a way of respecting the artist’s own choices for what to exhibit.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the exceptional efforts of Sharon Mastenbrook, who spent countless hours over the past two years poring over and collating Les’ belongings, looking for clues and links among her daughter’s artifacts of life and the subjects of her creative inquiry: her emails, pictures, negatives and websites, to name a few. A daunting task to be sure; Sharon assembled all the materials, some visible to viewers and most not, with great detail and a passion for organization. In turn, we can now try to make sense of a senseless, heart wrenching loss—to in effect find multiple meanings at once.
Todd Bartel, Gallery Director
Robert Adams, Why People Photograph
, Aperture Foundation, New York, NY, 1994, p. 15.
Les Mastenbrook, MICA Notebook
, 2002, p. 59.
Les Mastenbrook, MICA Notebook
, 2002, p. 63-64.
Les Mastenbrook, HOLGA Notebook
, (San Francisco), 4.02 [fill roll and negative number], dated 11/11/05
Les Mastenbrook, MICA Notebook
, 2002, p. 60.
Polly Vanasse, (elementary school teacher, Nashoba Brooks School), guestbook entry, 8/8/06
Sharon Mastenbrook, telephone interview, 12/14/13