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Lebanon Photographer Sends Images From Near Earth

  • "Orbiter," a 2017 photograph by Nicholas Gaffney, lends its title to a show of Gaffney's recent work at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon. (Courtesy Nicholas Gaffney)

  • "Lost Dog - Flag and Snow," a 2017 photograph by Lebanon artist Nicholas Gaffney. He set out last year to photograph missing-pet posters, and found other subjects along the way. (Courtesy Nicholas Gaffney)

  • "Elevated Boat," a 2017 photograph by Nicholas Gaffney. An exhibition of his work is on view at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon through May 25. (Courtesy Nicholas Gaffney)



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 09, 2018

An “orbiter” is an object that revolves around a celestial body, experiencing its gravitational pull but existing separately, a spacecraft.

It’s also the name of an amusement park ride, which the photographer Nicholas Gaffney stumbled upon at the Tunbridge World’s Fair one cloudy morning, before fair-goers flooded in. At the time, the Orbiter was empty.

“It was a great moment to be wandering,” Gaffney said during an interview at AVA Gallery and Art Center, a short walk from his home in Lebanon. His photography show — also called “Orbiter,” after the photograph he took of the ride — is one of four exhibitions currently on view at the nonprofit art center.

“I wandered past (the Orbiter) a couple times. On maybe the third time I saw the way the light hit it, in what struck me as a perfect way,” he recalled. He noticed the ride’s flashy colors and spider-like structure, the unlit bulbs studding the letters of its name. He noticed the uniform white of the sky overhead.

In that moment, “the name made sense to me,” he said. He realized that he, Nicholas Gaffney, was also something of an orbiter: As a photographer, “I sort of orbit above the world,” hovering apart from that which he documents. His lens keeps him at a mechanical distance, like a satellite that collects and transmits its findings back to Earth.

His subjects, however, are not stars or planets whose celestial natures carry a self-evident sort of heft. In the spirit of street photography and the anti-romanticism of the New Topographics movement, Gaffney’s subjects in “Orbiter” are the mundane, often unbeautiful scenes and objects that, once photographed and framed as art, take on a significance that wasn’t there, or wasn’t clearly there, before. Snow-covered bleachers, a towel hanging to dry, a telephone pole standing among trees and a garage with a rusted door are among the objects Gaffney and his camera have recast.

Also among them are missing-pet signs, a motif in the show that Gaffney described as “the original impetus for the project.” He likes to give himself assignments — in the past he’s photographed birds at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, greenery, and the storefronts and parking lots along Route 12A in West Lebanon. This time, his assignment was to search for missing-pet signs, and also for what fell into his orbit along the way.

“I found it helpful to have something to look for,” he said. “I would turn around after photographing something else and go, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to photograph.’ So a lot of it’s happenstance.”

In photographing the missing-pet signs, “you’re also photographing someone’s anxiety,” Gaffney said. “You’re witnessing, in a sense, a dramatic moment in their lives.” Just as the empty ride at the Tunbridge Fair was meaningful in a way that was specific to Gaffney, the emotional strain of losing a pet is extraordinary only to the owner, he explained. This is why he was careful to center each sign in his photos, even though the signs themselves are sometimes too weathered to clearly make out the pet in question.

“Orbiter” also portrays unexpected moments of discovery, some of them both eerie and absurd — such as in Corn Maze, in which three human figurines — necks crudely bolted onto squarish torsos, wooden stakes askew — stand inexplicably among thick stalks of corn: Stephen King meets Stephen Shore.

There’s also something oddly comical about the setup in Roadside Moose, where a large artificial moose has been placed in the back of a pickup truck, looking rather resigned to its fate. Color becomes important amid the dullness of the snow-dusted scene, especially red, which binds together the shiny vermilion truck, the glow of other cars’ tail lights and the stripes of the American flag.

Shooting Gallery peers into a garishly-striped tent at a fair, in which the remains of a bottle-shooting game lie all glittery on the floor, flanked by a Shop-Vac and a couple of gray trash cans. The subject is an ordinary fair booth, but also the tacky and cathartic spectacle of destruction for amusement’s sake, and the banality of tidying up the mess.

Meaning is something we make for ourselves, but the photographs in “Orbiter” raise the question of how that meaning is made, whether we apply it to an object, an act or an image. In contemplating the ordinary — and by demonstrating how the ordinary can take on new significance once it’s deemed worthy of documentation — the subjects of Gaffney’s photographs are not only the things depicted, but also the lens through which they are seen.

Nicholas Gaffney’s photography show, “Orbiter,” is up at AVA Gallery and Art Center through May 25. Also on view through May 25 are “A Change of Horse,” sculptures and drawings by the part-time Vermont artist Alysa Bennett; “Life Lessons,” portraits by the West Lebanon painter John Kenyon; and “Re-Purposed,” an installation by Norwich artist Jay Mead.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.