The Inquisitive Lens of Ron Tarver

Maggie Bocella

Art Matters

2005, FEB

The places and objects that inhabit Ron Tarver’s photographs “conjure more questions than they do answers,” as the artist himself has said of his own work.

Born and raised in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, he received degrees in journalism and graphic arts from Northeastern Oklahoma State University. After working as a photojournalist for newspapers in Oklahoma and Missouri, Tarver moved to Philadelphia to further pursue his passion for photography. He has worked since 1983 as a photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Tarver’s photojournalist eye is sharply evident in each of his pieces, as each one tells a story but leaves the viewer with a desire to ask more questions.
Tarver’s recent photographs comprise four bodies of work. “Havana” contains images recorded during the time she spent in Cuba during 2000. He was drawn to visit the city for its many contradictions; he views it as “lethargically energetic, [and] immaculately filthy.” The reputation for the city as a haven for pleasure and lushness contradicted its abject poverty, and Tarver became fascinated with the energy generated from this opposition. Tarver’s technique of black and white silver gelatin printing allows a range of tones from stark white to soft gray to deep cavernous black. There is a ghostly haze in many of the images that veils them is a mystery. In one picture of a monument to the poet and revolutionary José Martí, the behemoth statue emerges from the ground in a monolithic stance against a cloudy sky. A great power is given to Tarver’s subjects through his compositions and development techniques. Images of Spanish colonial buildings, their ornate doorways clouded in a soft fog, suggest the sadness and wonder of a history of joy and struggle.
“Homesteads'' is a series of photographs, which in Tarver’s words “explore the relationship between humanity, the land and the essence of home.” These photos evoke the late 19th century Pictorialist movement by which Tarver was influenced and that was concerned with the emotional impact evoked by the composition of a work of art. The images of the farmhouses, silos, and vast fields of farmlands at once suggest the idealism of rural American and the desolation that has befallen farmers across the country. The landscape in these images is as much the subject as the actual structures themselves, and through tonal subtleties is a given intense life and drama. Clouds pulse with an angelic glow above expanses of endless land. Hope is suggested amidst the desolation of the struggling farmer.
“Our Town” is a series of photographs taken in Philadelphia and its environs. Tarver has adopted the city as his home and bemoans its outmoded depictions as a struggling underdog. He has chosen to honor the city's varied landscapes and its rich architectural history through these images. The pleasing order of a string of row homes is conveyed through a careful composition, framed by winter’s elegant trees and a soft grey sky. The Manayunk Bridge looms heroically over the Schuylkill as streetlights glow. Again, Tarver’s development technique is used to great effect as softness and mystery emerge from within each photograph. Blurred edges around the photo, a result of the toning process, convey the seamless connection between the viewer and the piece. Tarver’s work as a photojournalist shows its influence here, as seemingly mundane locations are given predominance. He credits his work as a photojournalist with teaching him how to reveal the story beneath the surface, for establishing a connection between viewer and image.
The body of work entitled “Trees” shows Tarver’s keen and sensitive eye as it examines a single subject. The tree in “Grain Field” emerges from an opening suggestive of a keyhole, as the gelatin process creates a dark grey halo around the image. Again Tarver uses the landscape to evoke emotion, and each tree alternately suggests strength, delicacy, movement, stillness, darkness, and light. An image entitled “Floating Leaf” is a foray into meticulous detail, as Tarver gives center stage to the complex and beautiful network within a single leaf.
Presently Ron Tarver is experimenting with digital photography, combining it with the silver gelatin process. He acknowledges that digital technology is still in its youth, and that he and his contemporaries are pushing its limits. Tarver’s roots, he says, are in black and white photography and the emotional connection that it asks from the viewer. The subtle contradictions of his subjects can only grow deeper through further experimentation with process and form.
A 2001 Pew Fellow, Ron Tarver co-authored the book “We were there: Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq” with Yvonne Latty. Images from this book were displayed in the summer of 2004 at the National Constitution Center. His photo essay on African-American cowboys is featured on www.nationalgeographic.com. Tarver has displayed work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. His photographs are part of the many private, corporate and museum collections. Tarver is represented locally by the Sande Webster Gallery and by galleries in Delaware Maryland and New York.