By Mary Mares-Awe—THE CHICAGO CHAPTER of the Fulbright Association sponsored a reception at the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower in Chicago, showcasing the work of one of our own.
“Unfortunately, It Was Paradise” is an exhibit of haunting photographs by artist and member of the Fulbright Association Board, Regina Mamou. The exhibit had been on display at the City Gallery from October until last month. The Fulbright Association of Chicago hosted a closing cocktail reception of Regina’s exhibition attended by association members and the general public.
The photo exhibition is built around historical utopian communities that were founded in the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic regions from the early to mid-1800’s.
Regina first became interested in making the town of New Harmony and other utopian communities the subject of her photo project while showcasing her work at the University of Southern Indiana’s New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art, located in New Harmony, Indiana. The backstory of the historic town interested her enough to want to make it a focus of her next art project.
According to the town’s website, New Harmony was founded in 1814 by the Harmonie Society, a group of Separatists from the German Lutheran Church. Also according to the website, New Harmony is a vacationer’s dream and a researcher’s paradise. And that’s exactly what Regina set out to do —research the historic location.
“One of the projects that I do in photography is to research geographic locations. I approached it the same way as I did the research for my Fulbright project” said Regina referring to her geographic navigation research project she conducted as a Fulbright Scholar in Amman, Jordan (2009-2010).
She became interested in the history of the New Harmony community and others like it dispersed around several states of the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions, including Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio. She took a couple of weeks off work, and hit the road in pursuit of history.
Regina focused on buildings and spaces that represent the spirituality of the settlements. Each photo seems to communicate a different aspect of the utopian community’s life, but they’re all united by a haunting emptiness that speaks of a soulful approach to everyday living reflected in the details of the buildings, landmarks and landscape.
In her photographs, she concentrates on capturing the spiritual side of the community. The images themselves are eerily evocative of the loneliness of an abandoned community, and an ideal, that like a falling star in the night sky, appeared briefly over the landscape of a few, newly-forged settlements of the “New World.” Today these communities mostly exist as historic sites incorporated in the towns that house them.
“It was interesting to conduct a compare and contrast study of how the different communities were preserved,” said Regina. “They, to me, had a mystical aura to them – a sort of spirituality. And I could go in and use my camera to capture that essence,” she added.
It’s precisely because of the type of camera Regina uses that she’s able to capture the essence of a space. Her camera of choice is a Calumet 4×5 monorail camera. The prototype of the camera dates back to the first half of the 1900’s. When using this camera, it can take up to 30 minutes to compose an image. “A lot of times it’s me looking at the landscape or the architecture and really making what I hope will come out to be good decisions about the type of images I’m creating” Regina explained.
Much precision and thought goes into creating each image. As Regina points out, “the experience itself gave me a contemplative moment in the spaces about the type of images I was making.” The photographs were shot either at dusk or at dawn when the light bends in just the right way as the sun is either rising or setting. Regina attributes the interesting lighting to “a good way to capture the spirituality of the community.”
The product of Regina’s journey was the compelling photo exhibition, which the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events sponsored and organized for the public, offering Regina an opportunity to showcase her work in the City Gallery. The gallery lends itself perfectly to the historical theme of the project. Regina’s artist studio is also located in a historic part of Chicago – the Pilsen neighborhood. In the future, she plans on opening the space to Fulbright activities.