The occasion of a mid-career retrospective provides a rare moment to pause and look back at an evolving creative trajectory as well as to contemplate what’s next. This is surely the case with the exhibition 25, a mid-career review of photographic work by Tom Morin. A multitude of efforts are on display in this exhibition, tracing the years from 1992 to 2017, from those shaped during formative years of education to the hard knocks school of experiential learning in the commercial and fine art photographic fields. While chronology underlies the arc of the display on gallery walls, a pendant of welcoming images to the exhibition predicts many of the thematic and stylistic concerns which occupied Morin through the first half of his photographic career. Rendered as an undergraduate student at Southwestern University, the woman with fish and eyeball on a plate with cracked egg images, the latter an exercise assigned by commercial photographer Les Jorgensen, with whom Morin interned in New York City, signals the young artist’s preoccupation with metaphor as a venue for self-discovery. For Morin, metaphor was a means to “breaking out of a comfortable, isolated environment and embarking on a new visual journey.” The importance of this trope of pictorial representation in which the thing seen is symbolic or evocative of something else, including psychological states of mind or feeling, provides the backdrop to his early work as a student, in particular the Metaphor series, and then to a larger sequence of images entitled Remnants.
In many of the images grouped in the Metaphor series, Morin employed ideas and techniques aligned with the notion of previsualization in photography. Elucidated in the first half of the twentieth century by such noted modernist photographers as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White, previsualization is the ability to predict the appearance of a final image before the release of the camera’s shutter and the making of an exposure. As a tool for the student and then as a working commercial and fine art photographer, previsualization amounted to both a pictorial and psychological concept for Morin. Utilizing a darkened studio background, theatrical lighting and a probing camera lens, he engaged well known and well used environments, combined with disparate objects—dolls, human organs, blood, fish—and human forms in tight compositional framing, to foment psychological states of mind without any single interpretation or message. Instead, as Morin looked to achieve, audiences bring their own experiences and beliefs to viewing this series of photographs, teasing out personalized meaning based on subjective terms of emotion, instinct, etc. While previsualization underscored the formalized aims of the Metaphor series, in the subsequent Remnants series, it is set aside for a far more abstract and intuitive approach to picture-making.
In the three groupings that comprise the Remnants series—Airplanes, Chalkboards and Rounds—Morin comes into his own as a photographic artist of original subject and intent. The synthesis of intellect and emotion in this Series conveys a profound interiority through a minimalizing style that is revealing, subtly lyrical, metaphorically complex and without pretense. In the Airplanes grouping, gone are the vestiges of the studio set-up for the simplicity of the handheld medium format camera pointing upward to the night sky as airplanes landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport. The resultant solarized images draw on the intimate and intuitive experience of the nature of photographing itself. The encompassing eye of the photographer and camera fixed on light trails and the primacy of the experiential act associated with direct observation strikes an imaginative metaphorical note of acute awareness of self as the creative agent. This same metaphorical note rings through the Chalkboards grouping of images as well, but expanded to include considerations of communication and learning. In these images, the part or whole obliteration of a teacher’s written hand by erasure suggests both the presence and absence of the transfer of knowledge to a classroom of students. It is the captured sketch of a passing state from one thing to another, full with the mysterious air of arrested expectancy without the certainty of resolution. In the final installment of images in the Remnants Series, the grouping entitled Rounds, subject matter is thrown off, with the exception of the title that hints at the pictures’ origins, for a headlong excursion into abstraction. Here the “rounds” are the back sections of expended bullet shells, known as the primer which when struck by a weapon’s firing pin leaves an indelible impression. Using a substance called Nu Skin to coat and capture the impression left on a spent bullet’s primer, Morin sandwiched the impression between two glass slides and photographed via the magnifying gaze of a microscope. The final pictures are enlarged abstractions that again, while suggesting little about their explosive origins, create mysterious views of a kind of frightful beauty, conjuring up visual semblances of a tumultuous natural landscape seen from afar or a close-up of crystalline rock.
From the formalities of previsualization to the imaginative and personalizing use of abstraction, Morin sought to imbue his differing pictorial subjects with an authenticity of vision and aim. In recent years, as he has taken on new life responsibilities, Morin found new content and means to develop his photography. Beginning in 2012, as a public affairs photographer for the Texas State Guard, he took up a documentary approach to photographing the subject of military life. From a series entitled Service, Morin selected images for exhibition that show a pictorial unfolding from abstracted portrayals of guardsmen as well as law enforcement officers from multiple agencies, with only telling figural gestures, to a straightforward narrative illustration of soldiers and police officers in action. The warm tones of sepia and the articulated look of film-like grain, applied in digital post-production, connects the photographic images one to the other and heightens the gritty performance of military and law enforcement figures as they carry out their public duties.
There is a unique gravity that underscores a mid-career retrospective such as Morin’s exhibition 25. A gravity of moment when what work that came before are so many building blocks leading to an uncharted future of creative possibilities. According to Morin, next steps may involve the landscape, especially the urban and rural environment in and around his hometown of Houston, TX. Metaphoric language about the particulars of place are sure to abound, as too the primacy of the photographic act to “see” anew with invention. As this exhibition demonstrates well, Morin approaches his work with a challenge in mind in order to advance his abilities and knowledge as a photographic artist. In this way, he deepens the scope and depth of his evolving aesthetic interpretation.