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Massillon: Jeff Charbonneau and Eliza French Photography

Massillon Exhibition Eliza French & Jeff Charbonneau

Massillon: a narrative story told through pictures. While there is humor in these dark and sometimes peculiarly frightening images, a sense of melancholy, terror and doom fills the sequence that overwhelms the small gallery. Horror and the supernatural are found in the real life tale re-imagined by Jeff Charbonneau and Eliza French. they weave a tale of the life of Zeta Eliza Wolley and the culture in which she lived near the turn of the 20th Century. Wolley’s life was grotesque, mysterious and desolate. She had a strange fantastical mind brought about by the archaic and barbarous cultural beliefs regarding the role of women in the home and society at that time. This is a black and white Chromogenic series of gruesome absurdity told through the eyes of a descendant.

MAJ: The exhibition is inspired by the true story of your ancestor Zeta Eliza Wolley, specifically her life and death in Massillon, Ohio in the late 1800’s. Tell us a little about her life and death there, in words?

FRENCH: Zeta Eliza Woolley was born to Irish immigrant parents in the 1880’s in Wellsville, Ohio, and was raised there and in Massillon. By age seventeen, she was married to a Pennsylvania Railroad worker and bore his children for the next six years. As a woman of petite stature and frailty, she suffered great physical afflictions each time she became pregnant and gave birth. Her plea to doctors and to her husband for contraceptive measures was ignored due to the unquestioned cultural expectations for women of that time. Sadly, her physical and mental anguish increased with each new child. And in less than a decade, she had five. Four of her five children died in early childhood from unknown circumstances. Handwritten letters from her husband suggest that two years before the death of her fourth child, Zeta Eliza Woolley “fell ill” and became prone to wandering great distances alone. She would hide in abandoned coal mines in the area until discovered. Upon the death of her fourth child, she attempted suicide in one of the mines and was placed permanently in the Massillon State Lunatic Asylum. Her only surviving daughter was subsequently raised by an aunt and uncle in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from the age of six onward. She visited her mother in the asylum once a month for the following nineteen years. Zeta Eliza Woolley was abandoned by her husband who filed for divorce and shortly after remarried and began a new family. The two never saw each other again.

Our artwork in this series is motivated by an attempt to grasp onto someone we’ve never known, but whose story has had an indelible impact on the people we love. We do not attempt to portray her life factually, or realistically, but instead, draw deep inspiration from the situation of her suffering, and the hope that within that suffering, a vital fantasy life flourished. At the same time that we utilize the inescapable reality of the domestic role assigned to women at the turn of the century as motivation for pictures of loss, frustration and melancholy, we also react to the injustice of this role to create contrasting scenes of beauty, mystery and seduction.

MAJ: What, in your opinion, is the encroaching stench of new Victorianism?

FRENCH: The phrase, “the stench of New Victorianism” is a figurative way of referring to the rise, in very contemporary times, of a moral code (what we might call an immoral code) that has begun to jeopardize the cultural liberation of America in the 1960’s and 70’s. Without implying that everything Victorian was ascetic, we are cautioning the reappearance of dominant ideologies that remind us of those aspects of Victorian culture which had to be shed in the name of individual liberty. The Victorian period, we remember, also gave birth to the provocative ideas of Marx, Darwin, Nietzche and Freud. Unfortunately as a culture we most often label anything Victorian as sexually repressed, rigidly affirmed through social class and economically opportunistic and sometimes disregard the intellectual developments. These assumptions remain fair, however, because most of the common mythology is true. In our photo essay, we had the opportunity to look at the entire span of a woman’s life and interpret the various social mores and historical events and decisions that may have had a direct impact on her existence. Some we can find records of – others we can only imply or imagine. In our portrayal of Zeta Eliza, we see displacement, perhaps based on class; a conflict of morality and purpose concerning the obligation of a woman to reproduce; a system that confined and institutionalized anyone deemed to be unfit or a threat to the moral wellbeing of the community. We see parallels in our present day society. We have religious and political leaders encouraging young adults to repress themselves sexually and once again question a woman’s reproductive rights. We have a housing crisis, an economic crisis and a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. We have enacted doctrines that limit civil rights and justify the occupation of foreign territories.

An American doctrine during the Victorian period. was “Manifest Destiny”, which justified violent takeover of Native American territories. The state lunatic asylum at Massillon happened to be built on Native American cornfields and was the brainchild of President William McKinley – then Governor of Ohio. Perhaps he felt he was “cleaning up” society, much like our current administration feels they are “cleaning up” the “axis of evil”.

As artists that are handed down an oral history of an ancestor, we appreciate the embellishments and symbolism that are enhanced or modified through each generation. We allow this to influence our interpretation and consciously, or sometimes unconsciously, “filter” it through our personal circumstances. In manifold circumstances, Zeta Eliza Woolley was confronted with many of the same issues that we are dealing with today, and the images portray these parables and parallels as questions. Maybe our philosophical and social dilemmas haven’t really changed. We only pose these as questions and don’t portend to know the answer(s).

MAJ: Your photo Ablation, how did you created/what techniques were used for this work?

CHARBONNEAU: This photo was shot on a cliff in Northern California with traditional black and white film. We created a “garden” on the cliff edge with metal pinwheels on a very windy day. The vintage scythe is about a century old and is still functional. We have made our own filters that we use on our cameras. Some of the filters increase the contrast of the black and white film to the point of turning day into night and others soften the focus and diffuse light. We develop and print our images in a traditional wet darkroom. In the case of this print, we sandwiched two negatives together in the enlarger. One negative was Eliza chopping the “garden” with the scythe, the other was taken at the same location an hour or so later with just the clouds rolling in. Once we have a print that we like we give it a “toning” bath, first in selenium, which turns the mid tones and low tones into a rust hue and then a gold bath, which enhances the highlights and adds a blue tonality. Once this print is dry we use it as our new negative to print onto a metal based paper. That is then mounted to a sheet of Dibond (an aluminum based archival mounting board) for the final exhibition print.

MAJ: The same with Concresence, how did you create that work?

FRENCH: This photo was shot at sunset at a wetland marsh also in Northern California. The waning sun created a beautiful mirror reflection of the dress, the landscape and of Jeff dragging a net in the water. We printed this the same way as Ablation but with only one negative. As we were printing, we realized this image looked great turned upside down since the reflection was proportioned equally in either orientation. This also “reflected” our feelings about our subject’s life being turned upside down. 

Topanga Journal
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