Walker Art Center

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JoAnn Verburg
St. Paul photographer’s work invites immersion

By Matt Peiken

JoAnn Verburg holds two St. Paul zip codes—one for the apartment she shares with her husband, poet Jim Moore, and one for her studio, just south of the Wabasha Street bridge. But Verburg’s photography has always had a trajectory far beyond the Twin Cities. Many subjects of the portraits, landscapes, and still lifes that elevated her name in fine-art circles are East Coast artists and friends, Italian olive groves and, no matter where she sets up her camera, her patient and pliable husband. As it is, Verburg isn’t home often or for long, splitting much of her working time between Italy and, for the sake of a warm place to think, Florida.

Twin Cities galleries and museums tuned into Verburg shortly after she moved here in 1981. Her early connections with the Walker and its visiting performing artists inspired photographs that are still among her best-known images. The Walker also commissioned Verburg 23 years ago to shoot photos for a catalogue documenting the work of stage director and playwright Robert Wilson. “I feel a great debt to the Walker’s performance curating,” she says. “The connection is huge.” Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg, organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is her first exhibition at the Walker. Opening January 12, Present Tense features more than 70 pieces, anchored by her signature multipart images—as well as several works not included in the MoMA presentation.

She nods to her first year in Minneapolis and to the portraits she took of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, then artists-in-residence at the Walker. For a while, Verburg rented a room from the Walker’s performing arts curator at that time, Nigel Redden, who also housed many of the institution’s visiting performers, including Brown, who will return to the Walker in April. Verburg would go to the shows and, back at the house, listen to the performers dissect evenings. “They really talked about the body, and their language about dance really affected me,” she says. “I hadn’t really thought about the body as an artist, but I definitely felt something when I made my first image. I pinned it on the wall and it was like a magnet—I couldn’t stop looking at it. It gave me more impetus and avenues to pursue in thinking about the viewer as a physical being and not just as a disembodied eye.”

Verburg isn’t shy about discussing her work—indeed, she’s enthusiastic about sharing and showing it, speaking with a quiet quickness and rarely breaking eye contact—but she rarely appears in her photos, and then only on the periphery. Thumbing through the catalogue for Present Tense, she stops at certain images to describe them as “beautiful” or “gorgeous” with the detached wonder of a new viewer, not as someone responsible for them. “It’s very much a back and forth, letting people affect me and me determining things. It wouldn’t be any fun if I controlled everything,” she says. “I’m the person who starts it, but it’s everybody’s experience, and everybody’s going to view it differently.”

Born in 1950 and raised in northern New Jersey, Verburg made the most of the unique access and rare opportunities she was offered early in her career. Her father worked as a chemist with a company that manufactured photographic paper, and she studied the pantheon of photography and printing during a two-year internship at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. In the late 1970s, the Polaroid Corporation invited Verburg to launch a visiting artists program to experiment with its new 7-foot-high, 300-pound, 24-by-20-inch camera. She brought in artists such as Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Olivia Parker, and William Wegman, observed their processes, and began making her own Polaroid portraits. To this day, large-format cameras are the foundation of her work.

In the early 1980s, using an 11-by-14-inch camera with bellows that expand to five feet, Verburg began creating photographs she refers to as “the heads.” She imposed and implied relationships among people not only within a frame, but from one frame to the next, placing physical spaces she calls “hiccups” between the images to create narratives, or at least invite the viewer to imagine them. “I got interested in doing something like a yearbook portrait but with a permeable boundary, so you would feel the affect of each person on each other person,” she says. “I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I was redefining myself (as an artist).”

Verburg now works almost exclusively with a camera that uses 5-by-7-inch negatives, allowing her to focus on more than one point in her viewfinder and turn what otherwise might wind up as static landscapes into rich picture windows. By rendering at least one object as life-size, she says, her photos more easily immerse a viewer. Art critics note the motion in her imagery and praise Verburg for an ability to stretch time and tease the viewer. Her images of people coax you to peek around the edges, while her photos in nature emerge in layered focus. “It creates the implication that the boundary between the space in the image and space in the gallery is permeable, that it’s the same air,” she says. “That comes from thinking of being an audience to a performer, that you’re in the same time and space with the performer.”

Siri Engberg, the exhibition’s coordinating curator for the Walker, notes that Verburg’s work has always drawn viewers in as participants: “Whether you are gazing into the eyes of her life-size heads, looking down at her images of swimmers in a pool, viewing pictures of her husband napping, or even sensing that you could step into her large landscape photographs, JoAnn’s eye looking at all of these things is the connecting thread. What is continuous is her presence, and a palpable physical connection between the viewer and the images.”

The artist is considering what to do when she runs through her shrinking stash of 5-by-7 film. Kodak, the exclusive supplier, discontinued that line in 2006. “I’m still sick about it,” says Verburg, who reacted to Kodak’s announcement by snapping up every box she could find. She waves off the prospect of digital photography. “The focus looks weird. There’s an etchy quality to the edges I don’t like, and the light and other things just don’t look right,” she says. “I’ve heard Chuck Close say he could make art with pipe cleaners, and I feel that way, too. I just don’t know what that work will be.”

One certainty, she says, is that the Twin Cities will remain her home. She’s also considering shooting more work closer to Minnesota. In lieu of a nearby ocean, she imagines quiet time at a lake to satisfy her current craving to photograph water. “What keeps me here is partly Jim, and I really love the whole feeling of the politics and people,” she says. “When I moved here, I was really thinking about who I am and who I wanted to be. It’s not that it’s not up in the air now, but it’s up in the air differently.”

JoAnn Verburg, First Day Back in Italy (Pisa), 1998

Chromogenic color print, 11 3/4 x 16 1/8” (29.9 x 41 cm), Collection the artist

© 2007 JoAnn Verburg