Looking at the work of Carlos Tarrats gives the first impression of looking at a heavily manipulated digital image. It is anything but. Tarrats is an amazing conceptualist who follows a definitive premeditated approach to his work.
He quotes George Bernard Shaw, “Some people see things as they are and ask why? Others dream things that never were and ask why not?” In his still life photographs of plant life, Tarrats constructs within each scene the elements of life, death, hope and conflict. He explains that his realization of the subjectivity of seeing guides him to create images in a metaphorical and abstract way, allowing the viewer’s imagination to explore. He openly accepts interpretations of the images that might vary from his own. He says, “I like to use flora because, for the most part, it has no singular inherent meaning, and what meaning a particular species may have is typically not universal to all cultures or regions.”
Tension among the elements in each piece is a key to their intent. Tarrats says that he finds the versatility of plant life crucial to creating a sense of conflict, a sense of uncertainty of the outcome for the subject of each scene. He spends considerable time working with contrasts of color and composition to heighten that tension.
Tarrats’ message is so important that he refers to these plant photographs as “portraits.” He adds that these are not primarily self-portraits in any metaphorical sense, but rather more general investigations into life’s brief but extraordinary moments of being. He asks, “What if all of those moments were compressed into a single frame? How do you visually represent the sum of those moments?”
The view seen in the images in this portfolio is admittedly a dark one, and Tarrats is willing to concede that the work may be more about what he sees than he realized when he began the project.
Seeing the work, one might insist that the images are the result of digital manipulation. Not so. Works of this portfolio are all straight, un-manipulated photographs taken with a Hasselblad 503CW and a 120CF Macro Planar lens. He uses both 160 and 400 Kodak negative film. His images are printed digitally. Although trained as a digital photographer, Tarrats finds this methodology gives him the hands on approach that he doesn’t find using a computer. He has both a BFA degree in Photo- graphy and a BA in Art Studio, dual foundations that guided his path to an alternate aesthetic.
In Tarrats’s photographs, all of the physical elements in the images are real ― the plants, colors, scratches and props all exist on a set that he builds and photographs. Reality may be visually distorted, but never changed structurally. These are real places that once existed, he says, thought their appearance has been greatly altered in the photographs. He prepares a small still life area and hand paints his backdrops with colors to evoke the mood. His set construction is both amazingly simple and powerfully evocative. He carefully chooses live plants that will reflect the message of each particular scene.
With the backdrop in place and the live plants on the set, Tarrats then takes a sheet of Plexiglas and spray paints, paints with a brush, scratches and sands this front plane until it creates an additional visceral window to the still life. He reworks this plane until the final mood he seeks is revealed. Tarrats makes a reference to Velasquez’s paintings and that artist’s use of layered surfaces as an influence on his own work. In his constructions, light not only reflects off the plant/portraits, but also projects through the front plane of Plexiglas.
Occasionally, a perpendicular plane with black foil is placed between the background and the Plexiglas front plane. Through a hole in this shelf, Tarrats is able to show both the plant’s above- ground plane and the below-ground roots. Dirt is glued onto black foil. Some settings are further embellished with other artifacts, including nails. The whole operation appears as an eerie story of life above ground and torment and chaos below. The result might be interpreted as images of hope in an environment of darkness.
Tarrats explains that working with medium format Hasseblad gives him the flexibility of a handheld camera while keeping a large negative size. He uses Elinchrom 200 and 400 WS studio flash units, and occasionally, simple hardware store reflector lamps. He varies his exposures to balance or exaggerate the color of the tungsten light and his strobe lights.
Tarrats prints digitally and organizes his work in a series, with 10–25 prints in an edition.
Product Resources: Camera: Hasselblad 503CW; Film: Kodak color film (NC or VC); Lights: Elinchrom Style BX 400 Watt Monolights (2), Bulbs and plugs with reflectors, clamps; Tripod: Gitzo with Bogen head; Plexiglas; Rosco Cinefoil.