Profile of Jane Tuckerman

Seeing ghosts

Photographer explores finality of earthly existence

Published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on August 22, 2008

A battered doll with tangled blond curls and hypnotic blue eyes. A mourning woman seated by the Ganges River, wrapped in fluttering white gauze. Ghostly figures moving among the skeletal remains of the Lincoln Park roller coaster.Jane Tuckerman's camera reveals glimpses of worlds beyond our own, both earthly and unearthly. In "Haunted," her solo exhibit now on view at the New Bedford Art Museum, photographs and collages of objects and scenes tell tales of the past, presenting physical evidence of lives once lived.

Ms. Tuckerman is inspired by the views she has encountered during a lifetime of travel, and in the stories behind those views."I pick a location and I photograph that location, and then I try to figure out what the actual presence means in terms of spirits or ghosts," the artist says. "Usually the places that I pick are places of either great spiritual presence or really intense, almost horror, like some act of genocide happened there. I need to come to terms with that to understand it better, and the only way I can do that is by approaching it, and then incorporating it into my work."

Ms. Tuckerman grew up on a horse farm in Westport, her childhood "surrounded by a sense of mysticism." The area itself had a haunted sensibility; local folklorists told stories of the spirits of massacred Indians roaming the Westport River. Farm life was marked by events that were confusing to a youngster."Tragedy happens," the artist says. "A family pet dies, a farm animal dies, and it's not clear why."

Her father was 60 when Ms. Tuckerman was born, and his talent for storytelling revealed what life was like in the 19th century. He had lost a son in World War II, and from then on he always wore a black tie. Her father's ongoing mourning brought Ms. Tuckerman "closer to trying to understand what death means, what war means."

As a child, she loved exploring her grandmother's attic. "It was like a museum," she recalls, filled with old costumes and dolls in trunks.The camera as a means of expression and documentation had been a tradition in Ms. Tuckerman's family for generations. Her grandfather, intrigued by the advent of the photographic process, took portraits of his relatives as early as the 1840s.

Ms. Tuckerman herself turned to the medium for the freedom it allowed her to explore remote locations, both spatial and internal. "What I'm interested in is using photography as access," she explains. "I allow myself access to physical and emotional spaces that I otherwise wouldn't have. I need to be in those spaces physically in order to understand them and to do what I want to do."

Travel has always been a part of Ms. Tuckerman's life. From the time her parents first took her to Europe when she was 10, she thrilled to the sense of adventure in fresh, unexpected sights beyond the familiar scenes of home. At age 17, she hitchhiked across the United States and completed the journey with a visit to Guatemala.

Ms. Tuckerman earned a bachelor's degree from the Art Institute of Boston and a master of fine arts degree from Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied with renowned photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Then she taught at Harvard University, serving as chair of the Photography Department for almost 10 years.

While at Harvard, Ms. Tuckerman was one of four faculty members invited as part of a Smithsonian grant to spend two months in India documenting Hindu death rituals. This trip led her to her major theme: cultural ceremonies that highlight the finality of earthly experience and honor departed souls.

Her artistic destinations have encompassed all corners of the globe, including Brazil, Russia, Cuba, Jordan, Thailand and Turkey. One particular favorite is Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations; she has traveled there annually for the past 30 years. Some of her most striking imagery comes from her visits to former concentration-camp sites in Poland and Cambodia.

Ms. Tuckerman's recent photographs probe the subject of mortality in locations closer to home. When her mother died several years ago, Ms. Tuckerman found in her mother's closet the dolls that had once been stored in her grandmother's attic. A number of these dolls are pictured in the New Bedford Art Museum exhibit, in close-up views that highlight through worn surfaces their age and experience.

The show also features a recent series depicting Lincoln Park, the Dartmouth amusement park that opened in 1894 and offered roller-coaster rides until it closed in 1987. Ms. Tuckerman has collaged paper-doll-like figures onto photographs of the graffiti-marked ruins of the roller-coaster scaffolding. These human forms blend into the decaying scenery as if they could be the spirits of park patrons through the years.

It seems fitting that Ms. Tuckerman's Dartmouth studio was originally built as a church, then served as a doll museum, a puppet museum and a children's museum before she made it her work space. The open sanctuary holds long tables spread with collages in progress, and one large wall displays her latest pieces. The balcony has been converted into an office, and a newer addition at the back of the building houses a darkroom.

Every nook and cranny, every inch of surface and section of wall, displays the myriad objects Ms. Tuckerman has collected in her travels. Artifacts from around the world — some purchased, some received as gifts, some stumbled upon in the street — are lovingly arranged beside the antique finds she and her husband discover in regular trips to their favorite SouthCoast antique dealers. All of these treasures seem to belong together, despite their far-flung origins, for they all contain the literal and energetic imprints of the past.

Her working space, with its storied past and personalized decor, sparks the artist's imagination in the same way her international travels do."My studio tells me what to do," she says. "Being in an environment, that you create yourself from a kind of artistic perspective, allows you to hear messages from what's around you, from the objects, images and ideas you choose to surround yourself with."

Ms. Tuckerman has published a number of books of her photographs, including "Ghosts" in 2005 and "Haunted" in 2008, with a new title "Silence" nearing completion. Her work is held in such public collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Addison Gallery of American Art.

In addition to her studio work, Ms. Tuckerman is currently a photography professor at Lesley University, where she teaches a class in the history of artists' response to genocide. She also leads a course at Lesley called Rituals and Celebrations, a study of various rite-of-passage ceremonies that includes a 10-day visit to the Day of the Dead observances in Mexico.

Ms. Tuckerman's work confronts us with scenes of death and its associated traditions and emotions. In exposing many facets of this most overwhelming of subjects, she encourages us to embrace life by recognizing the grace and dignity of the human experience. As John Borowicz, curator of the "Haunted" exhibit, writes, Ms. Tuckerman has "dissolved the boundary between heaven and earth," through artwork that is "as transformative as it is unsettling."

"I hear the voices and I see the ghosts," Ms. Tuckerman says. "Even if you are not looking for them, that's the most extraordinary thing. Once you have tuned into something, no matter where you go, you see things. You know."