Personal Alchemies: The Photographic Work of Ray Carofano

I first encountered Ray Carofano’s work in 1997 as a reviewer for photo metro magazine during the first Photo Americas photography festival, held that year in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Carofano’s work stood out because of what can only be described as a marriage between his elegant use of complicated photographic technique, with the sheer beauty of its end results, and the poetic sensibility of the way he chose his subject matter, the deserts of the American Southwest. Other photographers have in recent times depicted, clinically and beautifully, the way human society has encroached on a once pristine environment. Robert Adams, Robert Dawson, and, perhaps most notably, Richard Misrach have documented the American desert. Carofano’s deeply mystical, split-toned images of burned palm trees and cacti with the quiet presence of high-tension wires or freeways did something different. He did not directly make the equation: man caused these fires through his exploitation of the natural environment. He did not treat it blandly or prosaically; he treated it in beautiful, subtle ways. He treated the scenes, the shapes and forms of burnt flora, the undulations of the desert, and the distant yet obvious markers of the presence of human intrusion. His work, like Werner Herzog’s remarkable film, Lessons of Darkness, about the oil field fires set in Kuwait during of the Second Persian Gulf War of 1991-92 presents these views as though they were nightmares, or dark dreams of a creation gone awry. I was deeply marked by his work.

The last five years have not changed Carofano’s way of seeing. He has, rather, moved the force of his vision at times closer to home. Based in the historic port town of San Pedro, California, Carofano has easy access to the coast and desert as well as to the people of San Pedro. This new imagery, landscapes by the sea, seems far calmer, more euphoric than elegiac. There is no high- tension here at all. It is as though he dreams new dreams now. No longer is he looking for lessons from which we could learn, but rather he is looking at different enigmas and posing new problems for himself and those who look at his pictures. Several images stand out in this series by presenting the viewer with things that do not make sense.

Like koans to be meditated upon but not resolved, a photograph of a stairway, apparently part of a building in the middle of nowhere make the viewer look into the picture in wonderment: is it being built, is it falling down, what is it doing there in the first place? The image is exquisitely toned and composed in such a way as to suggest Mayan step pyramids found in the jungles of Central America. It seems to exist in a timeless world in some far-flung nowhere. Limerick #2 also exists in an indefinite space: is it the fog-shrouded remains of a castle in Ireland, part of a lime kiln somewhere at the edge of mountains, or a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania? Does it matter? Carofano doesn’t give easy answers. In his statement he writes: “I want the spirit of my photographs to invite the eye so that the viewer might enter into its image … not to be rushed along, but to rest awhile and dwell with them in enjoyment of their atmosphere.” Like the wanderer in Man in Fog, the viewer is led along the edge of what he knows and what he doesn’t know without being entirely sure of where he is going, enjoying the stroll just the same.

Back in his San Pedro studio, Carofano has embarked on a series of portraits that are quite unlike his other work. The Faces of Pedro is a huge investment in time and energy on the part of the photographer and his subjects. San Pedro was always a tough town, and the collapse of the fishing fleet and closing of the canneries have left a deep impact on those living there that the expansion of the Port of Los Angeles has yet to fill. In a way, it seems a town Steinbeck or Chandler would have written about: hard, proud, mule stubborn, and hard pressed by the outside world. As Carofano tells it, “I became aware of the incredible faces and personalities around me. The faces tell a story, a sort of history about San Pedro like nothing else I have photographed. It’s hard to miss the visual poignancy of the veterans here, and thusly the faces project found me.” Carofano’s portraits are haunted by the haggard visages and dark shadings that speak of those moving through long nights looking for something that was, and might never be again. They are portraits of characters, not caricatures. Carofano transcends the risk of letting the images fall into clichés, and that is very hard to do. They comprise a very hard, intimate study of survivors.

The portrait of Donna hints at a 30s Hollywood beauty. She is described as having lived through cancer and is usually found in local bars sketching in her book. The grizzled Captain Lyle was a World War Two veteran, alcoholic and homeless, who died on christmas day, 1999. There is Ian, better known as Hawk, a former NHL pro hockey player. Salem girl just strolled into Carofano’s studio one Halloween. Their faces hint at any number of stories. Carofano’s use of lighting, the alchemy of his toning, and formal composition all serve to endow the sitters, the people living around him in San Pedro, his friends, with distinct personalities. There’s a hint of madness among the portrayed. The Faces of Pedro is a fascinating project, a portrait of a community of individuals. Ray’s strength is to treat each of his subjects with respect and dignity, allowing them to present themselves to him and to the viewer.

These two bodies of work reveal the way Ray Carofano looks at the world, intuitively, seeking out new subject matter, and shooting from the heart, while at the same time his personal darkroom magic, his technical alchemy, allows him to realize what his eyes and heart have found in the world around him.

Bill Kouwenhoven

Bill Kouwenhoven is editor of photo metro magazine. He lives and works in Berkeley, California and Berlin, Germany.