The human capacity for empathy accounts for our ability to make the stories of others our own. Due to Colette Campbell-Jones’ distance from the subject matter she covers, many degrees of separation populate her photography exhibition Stories from Underground. In it, she attempts to depict the “vanishing culture” of coal miners from her husband’s hometown in hazy South Wales by using digitally manipulated photographs displayed here in sunny Santa Fe. This is a dangerous pursuit but one that Campbell-Jones does with gravitas and a calculated awareness of storytelling’s pitfalls.
Campbell-Jones visually accounts for her naturally gap-riddled knowledge of others’ lives by piecing together photos, rendering them darkly and filling the unknown with fantasy. She sees Ton Pentre, South Wales secondhand and through the veil of her own subjectivity. Clearly the idea of the place made an impression on her long before she saw it with her own eyes.
Campbell-Jones’ photo constructions are an elegant way to show how we might compile the history of others: Through their own photos, a pastiche coalesces. For instance, Campbell-Jones melds numerous photos taken underground into one 20-by-120-inch picture of the wet dark dreary that she believes makes up miners’ daily lives. “Abyss #2” appears like a cross-section of an ant farm as one would view it from glass. Instead of insects, we see humans toiling in one spot, mining mechanisms in another, adulterated earth in another still.
All of the images carry an immense Sleepy Hollow fog. The predominantly dark-gray photos are brightened only by the occasional moon, streetlight or presumed light source—and even those emerge as shades of gray. Campbell-Jones uses the ubiquitous darkness as a recognition of the shortcomings in her conception of place. Her treatment of the photography mirrors the lens through which she views the South Wales town: sad and childishly grim like a Roald Dahl novel. To wit, bored children populate a number of the photos. In “English Out,” semi-disinterested kids look out onto the river while litter reveals itself at a slow pace along the shoreline.
Magical realism is another tool in Campbell-Jones’ arsenal. Clusters of writhing tree branches swarm the empty spaces in several works and, by extension, the void in her awareness of South Wales. She establishes the tree-branch refrain in “Abyss #1,” a 20-by-120-inch forest consisting mostly of gnarled trees and punctuated by the metal of a miner’s cart. Ostensibly this piece is the above-ground version of “Abyss #2.”
The visual machinations fit with the exhibition’s title. These are accounts Campbell-Jones knows are not her own. As such, she makes sure to pronounce the story-making capacity of the area by depicting people conversing, ostensibly creating their own oral histories. Accordingly, when there are people, they are never alone.
“Stories” is a work that shows numerous people conducting unconnected conversations. At a storybook-looking house viewed from the street, people gather in windows, out front and by the gate, all focused on their own conversations, unaware of the interloping camera. Presumably, they are passing on their own stories to eventually make up the mythos found in exhibitions like this one. Above the house, the aforementioned branches creep—what Campbell-Jones doesn’t know about the conversations is filled in with wonder.
Stories from Underground is not a documentary project but rather a series of vignettes tinged by other people’s memories and the artist’s perception. A story need not be accurate to be beautiful nor true to be compelling, but—as is the case here—it’s always more believable when all the author’s cards are on the table.