Terra Phantasma : The Photographs of Ray Carofano

An Essay written by Carol McCusker, Associate Curator of Photography at TheMuseum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, CA

terra phantasma : the photographs of ray carofano


In the decaying American landscape, there are things that set off my sense of the sinister and ‘awe-full’ ... like the buzz of a defective neon sign, the black framework of high tension wires or the El, the unidentifiable mutterings of the natural and manmade world ... These are strange enchantments and modern horrors in comparison to which the darkness of Gothic castles and haunted woods are light.

––Fritz Leiber, paraphrased from Night’s Black Agents

Ray Carofano makes hauntingly beautiful photographs. Like Leiber, he presents us with a world he finds as much poetic as ‘awe-full’. It is grounded in the grand and familiar––ancient trees, graceful tunnels, ominous wires––without lending familiarity. The light within his images appears to come from no apparent source; rather, it comes from the photographer himself. Indeed, Carofano treats his subjects so that they exude a life all their own that only his brand of darkroom alchemy can bring forth. He explains that “photography starts with the eyes, but my work is not just about seeing.”

It is also about the language–less realm of emotion and memory, of long childhood days spent in the woods of rural Connecticut where he grew up, and escaped, like a post-war Huck Finn, into the land of his imagination. “Today, sometimes when I’m working in a wooded area,” he says, “I relive that experience, and when looking through the viewfinder, I try to isolate things to get that feeling of a strange and mysterious landscape ... which allows the viewer to sense what I felt.”

            In Carofano’s photography is a sense of deep time, of history, erosion, decay, passage and renewal. He takes these abstract ideas and literally allows them to abstract the things he is drawn to. The edges of his world blur, creating images at once literal and metaphoric, apocalyptic and expectant. They are transcendent, reconciling the forces of nature with man’s optimistic attempt at permanence; within each a recurring cycle of cultural death and exultant rebirth.