'Mannequins & Men' and other double-takes
Robert Easton's exhibition features shops and their keepers, providing another view of the mundane, the normal, the utterly ordinary
By Nichole Sobecki
Special to The Daily Star
Thursday, June 07, 2007
BEIRUT: At the crowded bar of Hamra's trendy De Prague cafe sits a mild, wiry man. In his checkered button-down shirt and kakis, hair neatly combed to the side, he stands out from the hipsters surrounding him. "I'm the preppiest guy here," Robert Easton says, as he surveys the opening of his newest exhibition "Mannequins & Men," which will adorn De Prague's walls for the month of June.
Featuring over a dozen medium-scale images of mannequins and shop workers, the exhibit explores a common theme of Easton's work: his vision of the mundane, the normal, the utterly ordinary.
A Beirut resident for the past five years, the veteran photographer and teacher has made Hamra his haven and, more recently, his inspiration.
"I was walking up Jeanne D'Arc Street and there was a mannequin, and a mannequin," he explains, "and a man. And they all looked identical. For me, it is a kind of visual pun that there would be the three of them looking so similar and one of them being very different."
Meandering cautiously amidst De Prague's congestion of consumption to inspect the images, you notice the aesthetic of the photograph shifts and blurs as people pass. The light changes. The serving of food and drinks intrudes upon the framed image. By purposefully framing his images in reflective glass, the window displays that are the subject of Easton's photographs mingle with the viewer's reflection to form a series of ocular palimpsests.
"This additional layer forms a collage which I really like," says Easton, gesturing enthusiastically. "It is unplanned. If you see yourself in the reflection of the glass you become a part of the art as well."
Easton's love for photography began, unexpectedly, when he worked as a photographer for the US Army in Vietnam from 1968-71. Working as a crash-damage analyst, Easton would photograph busted-up helicopters to provide data so experts could work out why they'd crashed, and how to improve the machine.
Returning to the Unied States from Vietnam, he continued to seek out ways to make photography his profession, working freelance for four years before deciding that wasn't the right path for him.
"Freelance photography has a very appealing sound to it but really it's not just about being an artist," reflects Easton with some nostalgia. "It's not just about taking good photographs. It's about being a good businessman and I wasn't very good at that part."
Instead, Easton turned to teaching, a career he has pursued throughout his life and that "fits who I really am and what I love." These days Easton works as the elementary school assistant principle at Beirut's American Community School.
"Still, I often found a way to use photography in my classroom, involving Polaroids in class projects or encouraging the students to explore their visual environment."
Outside the classroom Easton has continued to use the skills he first learned photographing downed helicopters to explore his more immediate surroundings, exhibiting his work in galleries in the US, France, Turkey and now Lebanon.
Although Easton sees "Mannequin & Men" as a complete series of work, he is still fully engaged with the concept of the exhibit. Easton plans to continue to explore the project by forming iron-on transfers melding specific sections of his current archive of images to form abstract conglomerates of flesh and plastic.
"I want to use parts of these photographs to collage people and mannequins together," he says, "to create a form that is part real and part unreal."
Looking at Easton's images, the visual signals that differentiate the man from the mannequin begin to fade. The subjects of his photographs strike their own poses in the presence of his lens, posturing to display themselves in the best light, much in the same way that the plastic figure behind them exhibit their products. Such a comparison is not, however, meant to taint the subject with an accusation of vanity.
"Many people have asked me whether I am making some form of social commentary on Lebanese society being rather materialistic," Easton reflects. "That's not really what I'm trying to do.
"People can read that into the images ... and I don't discourage them from that but I don't want to force-feed an interpretation. People need to conceive of my work on their own."
Ultimately Easton's photographs are about representation: how you represent yourself, how a company represents their product and how Easton chooses to represent the Hamra windows he walks past every day.
"Many people will look at these pictures and wonder why I took pictures of stores," Easton contends. "But this is part of our environment and if I can get you to look at it and make you think differently about it, I will have done my job. I think there are a lot of things in our everyday life that are artistic that we just don't notice."
Robert Easton's photo exhibit "Mannequins & Men" can be found this month at De Prague, around the corner from the Hamra branch of HSBC Bank.