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Art People: Pamela De Marris's family portraits

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In 1988 a young technician at a neighborhood photo lab in Muncie, Indiana, threatened to report Pamela De Marris to the FBI. For months the guy had processed De Marris's haunting images of her children wearing masks and wrapped in cellophane as they floated in the backyard pool. De Marris says the technician told her, "I can no longer do these, seeing what you're doing to these children."

It wasn't the first time De Marris had come under attack for the pictures, part of a series called "Undercurrents." She acknowledges the works were "troubling for a lot of people. They thought I was drowning my kids." De Marris exhibited the photos in New York, Paris, and Chicago. She says French critics loved the show, and when the Cultural Center displayed "Undercurrents" in 1986 Abigail Foerstner wrote a positive review in the Chicago Tribune, describing the theatrical water scenes as "humorous, sinister and spiritual, sometimes all at once." But when the photos were shown in Fort Wayne, public outcry led to the removal of several images. "I just let it go and didn't protest," De Marris says. It was a case of bad timing: the exhibit coincided with several child abductions in the Fort Wayne area.

De Marris soon stopped working on "Undercurrents" and no longer sells or shows the prints. "I didn't want my kids to make someone feel uncomfortable or have people look at them in some strange way," she says. But De Marris still uses her two teenage daughters as models, as she has since they were babies. "It is part of our family history and our interaction."

De Marris began taking photos when she was nine years old. She won a Brownie camera by signing up 12 new subscribers along her paper route in rural Michigan for the Niles Daily Star. "I didn't have the greatest childhood, so I used the camera to document the things I was questioning--my siblings, my parents, whatever," she says. "It allowed me to control the moment I captured."

She found another outlet in ventriloquism, using a Charlie McCarthy doll. "Charlie would say what I wouldn't say."

De Marris chronicled her fantasies with the Brownie. "If things weren't so wonderful, I would make up my own scenarios, my own little worlds. I would even take a whole roll of film, and each image had to make a story. At the end of the roll I'd make a sign that said "The End."'

Now De Marris mostly photographs her family and friends posed in scenes that resemble Renaissance and baroque paintings. Her husband, a gastroenterologist, prefers to work behind the scenes, helping to construct her often elaborate sets. De Marris's four-room studio is crammed with garage-sale finds--a collection of chairs, a gurney, Victorian frocks, a baby buggy stuffed with plastic dolls--and remnants of her own past. Sometimes her photo subjects will bring their own props. De Marris also stages scenes in a couple of abandoned buildings in her neighborhood, which was once Muncie's flourishing downtown.

Like 19th-century photographers, De Marris favors long exposure times. Her lighting is simple, her images lushly saturated. The colors look more like they came from an oil palette than photographic dyes. De Marris makes life-size prints, laminates them with an ultraviolet protector, and frames them herself with elegant black molding.

She calls her latest series "Suburbs of the Subconscious." Like "Undercurrents," the pictures elicit a lot of interesting comments. In the photo Two Women and Their Dog, De Marris's daughters are dressed like 17th-century European peasants and seated at a table preparing a salad. One of the girls slices a blood red orange, while the other slices a cucumber. "Some people see it as representing my Slavic heritage and some people see it as Lorena Bobbitt," she says.

Unlike previous summers, De Marris won't be using her underwater camera in the backyard pool. Instead, she'll cart her gear to France for a three-month fellowship in Giverny, at Claude Monet's gardens.

Twelve photographs from "Suburbs of the Subconscious" are on view until April 14 at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Illini Union Art Gallery, 828 S. Wolcott. It's open 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. Call 413-5200 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Michelle Litvin; Pamela De Marris.

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