Book Review: In Plain Sight
By Larayb Abrar
The California-born photographer, Jean Pagliuso, writes about the importance of “the serendipitous mistake” in the introduction of her book In Plain Sight. To Pagliuso, these “mistakes” frequently lead to the faded colors and tones found in many of her photography. Her collection of photography from 1968-2017 spans over six sections including photographs of her travels, dreamy images of Hollywood and even photographs of owls and poultry that would rival the fashion photography in Vogue.
We begin with “Women and Fashion,” where Pagliuso is apparently at the beginning of her career with photographs from the late ‘60s to ‘80s. She is also working at a time when the concept of women photographing other women was rare. This section depicts women in positions of risk and power. In one black and white photo, “Gramercy Park Balcony,” a woman overlooks a balcony while looking at herself in the mirror. This photograph is reminiscent of the balcony paintings during French Impressionism which was meant to depict the power of a gaze and emerging subjectivity. Pagliuso accomplishes a similar feat with her photographs of these women in this section who are powerful in their ability to look, gaze and judge.
The next two sections are titled “Film Stills and Portraits” and “Artists and Friends.” These sections are where Pagliuso documents her time in the glamour of Hollywood among celebrities and on film sets. Her work ranges from grainy images of actresses like Sissy Spacek to iconic black and white photographs of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep embracing in “Heartburn” to the striking colors in Anjelica Huston’s portrait on the set of the TV show “The Addams Family.” What’s important to note here is the running thread of color and texture manipulation as Pagliuso continues to redefine realism through tinkering and what she calls “technical misfires” in her dark room.
In the photos taken in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pagliuso has left Hollywood and is instead traveling the world in the sections “America and Abroad” and “Fragile Remains.” These sections contain photographs of simple things: trailer parks, waitresses, relatively empty landscapes. In “Fragile Remains,” Pagliuso depicts images of crumbling religious establishments such as churches and temples, but also desert-scapes and dying forests. The focus on these everyday scenes ties in with the title In Plain Sight, to suggest that these things are ever-present and yet they rarely draw our attention.
Despite her initial assertion that “nothing in [her] background appeared to be responsible for the nourishment [she] found in the visual,” in the last section of the book, Pagliuso returns to her childhood roots by photographing portraits of chickens and owls from her father’s poultry suite. In these photographs, she plays with contrast and accentuates the feathers, elevating the fowl to chic and elegance.
As a whole, Pagliuso’s collection is about high-art and glamour. Her unconventional use of a dark room creates realistic images with fabulous composition. Whether it’s Hollywood or a poultry suite, Pagliuso is sure to depict it with reverence and awe.