Michelle Magdalena’s photography comes to terms with death—and life.

Caught on Film: Though she works with digital, Michelle Magdalena favors film, archival silver gelatin prints and her vintage Hasselblad camera.

In the open-beam ceilinged loft of her Pacific Grove home her father built, Michelle Magdalena Maddox – tall, crimson-haired, pale skin peppered by freckles – gracefully patters about. She sits in a chair, swivels, gestures expressively, gingerly touches her face, crosses her legs, spins ‘round, and aims her eyes as if taking a photo of the unfolding conversation about her craft – photography.

“I just don’t trust digital,” she says in her slightly husky voice. “Film is an object created through a chemical process [she holds up a sheet of film negatives and waves it]. It’s tangible. It’s not just 0’s and 1’s in digital space. Art is alchemy.”

She signs her silver gelatin prints Michelle Magdalena, on the advice of photographer Joyce Tenneson. In January, she packed up all her photographic prints and moved to Houston because, she says, “I fell in love with a hippie.” (She’s since moved back.) She’s descended from a family of European artists and knows her trade, naming past masters with ease and reverence, and talking about key institutions (“I so want to be a Magnum photographer”) including Group f/64, whose fine art photography traditions laid a foundation for her. She’s had the right schooling, apprenticeships and connections.

For Magdalena, at the ripe old age of 24, the fundamentals are in place for a conjunction of elements that will announce her arrival as a significant artist. She thought that moment came with “Magnolia.”(See cover photo.)

“After I took that picture I wanted to retire,” she says, laughing at the conceit. “I was 20 years old. I had just been taking nudes for three years, learning how to interpret form, how to compose, work with the human body within my frame.”

It’s a gorgeous shot. The giant flower cradled by the sensually nude 6’ 2” woman (most of Magdalena’s subjects are women) was found behind Monterey High and summons Georgia O’Keeffe. The composition is a synthesis of Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and it’s a worthy homage, informed by her own aesthetic philosophy.

“I shoot symmetrically,” she says, gesturing with her hands. “Meaning: balanced, centered, a strong composition that guides you to the subject. I’m really into divine symmetry. DaVinci used it in his drawings. If you look at a leaf, a human, they’re balanced. I like to create photos that make you feel at peace.”

In a flyer advertising her first Big Sur Nude Photo Workshop on Aug. 21-23, for which Kim and Gina Weston served as guides, “Magnolia” looks like a tribute to Weston, and a new beginning. It’s a magnificent photo in a career that’s gaining momentum. She’s currently showing at three venues – Cafe Lumiere, Cafe 316, and Steinbeck Center – and Sept. 18-20 will conduct her second Big Sur Nude Photo Workshop (register at m3@michellemagdalena.com by Sept. 11) with local models, a Big Sur excursion and a presentation at Henry Miller Library.

Cafe 316 displays A Show of Hands, a Zen-influenced meditation on bravery, confusion and various other emotions and states of being, depicted in complex – almost like gang signs – configurations of two hands. The Steinbeck Center contains three Magdalena photographs as part of its current group show, From This Stone and Anvil: Arthurian Legend Exposed and Abstracted. One shows Magdalena and her boyfriend, Aussin, in an embrace, like a forest nymph-like Adam and Eve.

Weston has seen Magdalena’s fine art photos.

“As a young artist, she’s just beginning,” says the acclaimed photographer, who assisted his uncle Brett as a youngster. “What I see in her and what was exciting and why we [he and his wife, Gina] decided to do the workshop was because she had the passion. There are hundreds, if not thousands of young artists who have not taken the steps she’s taken. To distinguish her as making an impression on the art world is premature, but what’s important is her passion at doing what she does.”

Magdalena knows where she’s heading with her work, but it’s the obscure exhibit at Cafe Lumiere (the cafe/gallery at Osio Cinemas) that diverges from – and, in a raw way, transcends – her compositionally balanced, fine art portfolio. It’s called They Used to Call Them Locusts. Taken as a whole, as a story, the works form one of the county’s most direct and powerful photographic statements since Angela Strassheim’s 2008 solo show at the Monterey Museum of Art/La Mirada. It’s a stunning narrative, as daring as a stunt, and as primal as weeping. It’s also a testament to Magdalena’s fidelity to photography and artistic courage.

Annie Liebovitz photographed a controversial series revolving around the death of her father, as Richard Avedon (both heroes of Magdalena) had done with his father years earlier. When Magdalena’s father was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, she followed suit, photographing “the process” of his illness and death. She was 21 at the time.

“My grandfather died that year,” she says in a measured voice. “My father died in October. I was deranged for three years. The pictures I took after his death… they were very… deranged.” She suddenly cries.

“We lost the men in our family. My father was very auditory about his pain, moaning, crying. This house is really acoustic. My dad died for over a year.”

The photos, arranged in groups, include a healthy, robust father, hanging out of a commercial fishing boat, glad with life. It ominously shares the frame with a shot of him caught by illness, thinner, in a hospital bed. Some are accompanied by simple, pencil-scribed captions: “Father Richard came with his communion in a box.” There’s a photo of her mom cradling her sick father. Another shows Magdalena sitting bedside, her father’s eyes closed, head sunken into the hospital pillow; she’s looking at the camera, her face naked anguish. It’s captioned: “The morning he died.” Close-ups of Magdalena and her brother reveal the resigned exhaustion that follows fresh grieving.

Gone is the whimsy and careful compositions of her earlier work, replaced by a documentary style shot with simple artistry. One photo is blurry, like seeing through tears. Another finds Magdalena and her mother joining her father in the hospital bed – the cable release is visible in Magdalena’s hand, a recurring device she uses like a motif, like “a hidden truth.” Alone in the hospital room one day with her father, Magdalena told him, “Dad, I want to do a nude of you.” The resulting photo shows a man, naked as an animal, primally human, starkly mortal.

This exhibit – like a brazen, unthinkable performance piece – hangs at Cafe Lumiere with trap-like innocuousness until this weekend.

“I wish people would look more closely at my work,” she says. “Every photo I take tells a story.”

Taken out of context, each photograph says little of coherence. But viewed wholly, the pictures and snippets of captions tell a story that is universal. In clumsy words, it might go something like this: “My father was a fisherman. He loved the sea. We loved him. He got sick. He wasted away. It destroyed us. We didn’t want him to die, but he did anyway. Love your father while you can.”

They Used to Call Them Locusts is the name of the show. What “they” used to call locusts, in Biblical times, were also called plagues.

“Cancer is becoming epidemic,” says Magdalena. “When my dad was dying, I would hunt down doctors, asking ‘What causes cancer? What, what, what?!’”

The ordeal politicized her. She wants to promote a new series of photos corralled under the self-aware banner Propaganda. One shows a person in a gas mask, a hand upraised to halt the viewer, warning of danger. Others implore peace, like the idyllic “Make Peace,” a Monet-like picnic scene. “Save the National Parks” is an Ansel Adams-esque black-and-white of tree trunks stacked like bodies, their limbs sawed off. She’s a visual board member of the Peace Alliance, currently campaigning to create a U.S. Department of Peace. She rails against corporate food and the health-care industry (“Keeping Americans sick is a big industry”).

But the pain is subsiding, and anger isn’t prominent in Magdalena’s make-up. Maybe she’s processed it and evolved, as she likes to say. She seems to have arrived back at her original mission – searching out beauty and symmetry.

“There’s enough chaos in the world,” she says. “I don’t want to seek it out.”

One girl, who had lost a parent to disease, came to Magdalena after seeing the exhibit and cried – a sure sign of healing taking place. Magdalena was dropped into the dark reaches of the lives of humans and captured an ugly, intimate death with her camera. No one can blame her if she chooses, for the rest of her career, to capture beauty and life.

MICHELLE MAGDALENA hosts a dinner, presentation, print sale and music party 5:30-8:30pm, Sept. 18, at Henry Miller Library, Hwy 1, quarter mile south of Nepenthe, Big Sur. $25/person; RSVP for dinner by Sept. 11 at www.michellemagdalena.com.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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