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Gordon Stettinius

Creation Story

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Birthplace: Richmond, 1966

Education: University of Virginia, B.A. in studio art and art history, 1988

Artistic Medium: Photography

Where you can see his work: In the Skylight Gallery at Artspace, 6. E. Broad St., through Dec. 2 in his current exhibition, "Mental Block Party!," and also at www.eyecaramba.com, Stettinius' online photography and creative writing Webzine.

Things he photographs: Stettinius' photographs run the gamut from "nerdly dad pictures" of his 6-year-old son, Walker; to evocative images of found objects and landscapes; to sometimes bizarre, unreal scenes created with objects and dolls. The image on the postcard advertising "Mental Block Party!" depicts a strange, pregnant Barbie doll (with baby nestled inside her cutout belly) that he found on eBay.

"My photos tend to sort of draw from my life," he explains. "I search out certain things, but my interests are random."

Commercially, Stettinius has taken many portraits of musicians — he has photographed artists such as Golden Smog, Blue Dogs and Beck.

What inspires his work: Stettinius pitched the idea for his latest show to Artspace more than a year and a half ago. His idea was to exhibit photographs that depicted "faux, still-life tableaus" — photos of things like the pregnant Barbie.

However, after a fateful shopping trip to Target, "the whole show took a left turn," he says. There, Stettinius found, on clearance, kitschy plastic bar lamps with a stylized martini depicted on the front panel. He immediately saw that these lamps could be refitted to provide a unique showcase for his photos.

He scoured four Target stores in Richmond, buying about 20 lamps. He sanded the martini image off the front, printed some photos on ortho film, and then inserted these transparent images into the front of the lamps, which are essentially light boxes. When the lamp is turned on, Stettinius' photos — which already resonate with an otherworldly energy — literally glow.

His show contains about a dozen lamps, interspersed with another dozen black-and-white and color photographic prints.

What he looks for in a photograph: Stettinius is one of those photographers who has a particular talent for recognizing the bizarre — and the beautiful — in the everyday. Whether he's shooting a picture of a Statue of Liberty figurine in shackles "Liberty in Chains" (a photograph that takes on added resonance after Sept. 11), or a baby riding on a luggage carousel at the airport, Stettinius makes his audience really think about how they see.

"I will occasionally style a photo and try to elicit something," he says. "But mostly I look for any kind of moment where the situation kind of transcends itself. … You may be really enthusiastic, and your eyes roll back into your head as you are talking. It may not be your favorite picture, but that's the kind of thing I'm looking for."

Equipment he uses: Stettinius primarily uses old cameras that he has found in thrift stores. He especially favors plastic toy cameras such as the Holga and Diana, which impart a romantic look to his photos with their dark edges, low contrast and soft focus.

He also likes to shoot with a "super sharp" 40-year-old Roloflex.

Most of his black-and-white prints are sepia-toned. "It lends itself to a vaguely antique vibe," he says. "My cameras impart a similar sort of feeling."

Why he likes photography: Stettinius took a few photography classes in college, but it wasn't until he graduated that he really began to explore the medium. A friend had a darkroom and invited Stettinius to use it — it was his only artistic outlet at the time. When he moved to San Francisco in the early '90s, he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute and began to seriously study photography and think about making it his career.

"It is a sort of quick way of excising yourself of ideas," he explains. "One roll of film can take you through all sorts of situations and ideas. It is like the ultimate sketchbook."

Stettinius, who carries a camera with him most everywhere he goes, says: "Photography is a way of engaging with the outside world. … And if you make a really good [photograph], you can be really generous with them. Sure, I try to sell my work and get it out there, but it works on this other level, too. It is a thing you can do for somebody, like baking them cookies or knitting a sweater.

"… Even if you're not into pictures, a photograph will mean something. … They just get better with age." He points to a photograph of his son. "I like it now, but in 50 years, it will make me weep."

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