Stephen Chalmers, "25 Male Victims, CA" (2009), inkjet print. (c) Stephen Chalmers, courtesy of Light Work.
I'd mistakenly had Light Work Gallery's opening reception for Stephen Chalmers' "Unmarked" on my calendar for the next week. There on another errand, I discovered the crowds, the wine and the cheese, so I thought I'd better take a look since the photographer was there too. Chalmers is a Kentucky native who moved west to Washington State a decade ago and in the winter of 2007 had a Light Work residency. "Unmarked" is what he's been working on over the past four years, some 250 photographs of "dump sites" used by serial killers up and down the West Coast. There are 16 large color prints on view, and 31 prints (plus a map) in #156 of the gallery's "Contact Sheet," which serves as the show's catalogue. Most were made since he was last in Syracuse.
So, though I knew what "Unmarked" was about, coming upon it in person was unexpected. The pictures themselves have that same quality. They are, after all, images made quite exactingly -- Chalmers used FOIA requests for court transcripts and police reports, a team of researchers and satellite GPS for precise locations -- of the places where human remains were first discarded and then discovered. More immediately, you quickly notice each has an area of extremely sharp focus, contrasting with the rest of the image, which is softer and seems to fall away. This works best in the wall prints and it's harder to see in the smaller catalogue prints. But the effect is startling, suddenly pulling on your attention toward one spot, echoing if not quite reproducing the shock of discovery.
The 16 images in the gallery portray pastoral country scenes: streams turbulent and placid, deserted roads, thickets and underbrush, high tangled grass, dense old-growth forest, bridges. Several were taken in winter, but most span the other three seasons. Chalmers says he made no attempt to recreate the exact time of day or weather when a body was discovered, nor the particular vantage point of the discoverer.