Idaho Arts Quarterly » Front & Center

Rejoicing within the Context

A glimpse of photographer Deborah Hardee's work

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Deborah Hardee's house rests on a corner lot at the end of a tree-lined street. It's outwardly welcoming, but not ostentatious. Inside, the sunshine refracts through the many windows, playing hopscotch over her vintage couches and spilling onto the polished wood floors. The walls are sparsely hung with paintings, including a small James Castle, and everything seems at once charmingly bohemian and meticulously staged.

For Hardee, one of Boise's most prolific and diverse photographers, every object tells a story. Her current series, which she calls simply "West," is a pictorial journey through small mountain towns from Idaho to Wyoming, where every flickering neon light and spider-web-cloaked antler tells a forgotten tale of beauty and decay. Hardee uses a camera to frame scenes that convey equal parts nostalgia and regret. The subtle images ache with a tangible human absence, fingerprints just visible in the settling dust.

Traditions West - DEBORAH HARDEE

Though Hardee has spent a good amount of time in both San Francisco and Phoenix, and shot for the likes of Vanity Fair, Reader's Digest and The New York Times, she's found herself drawn back to Boise over the years. And with a group of longtime college friends that includes gallery owners Jacqueline and Charley Crist, it's easy to see why this environment is stimulating. Hardee's first group exhibition was a student show alongside Charley Crist at Boise State more than 30 years ago. It was also at this time that she began an artistic friendship with an eccentric older woman named Thelma.

"I started photographing what people were collecting in the '70s. I was really looking at how people manipulate their environment, what we build or what we make," recalls Hardee.

Water Line - DEBORAH HARDEE

The "Thelma" series embodied that idea completely. In one photo, Thelma is reclining on her bed, her white bouffant pressed gingerly against her flowered, blue-upholstered headboard. A white fur stole drapes softly around her shoulders and her feet, in pink peep-toe heels, cross at the ankle. She is tragically elegant and comically ornate, with strands of pink and purple faux pearls draped over her dresser. But there's something in Hardee's depictions of Thelma, dressed for a cocktail party she'll never attend, that remains both empathetic and merciful. Though Hardee focuses on the gaudy elements in Thelma's kitschy, dollhouse world, she doesn't remove them from their larger narrative or try to pass judgment.

"She's rejoicing within the context, and not extracting or separating," explains Jacqueline Crist. "I'm not sure if Deborah even knows specifically that she's doing that."

After Hardee graduated from college, she got a job as a lab tech in the photo department at the Idaho Statesman. She remembers being enthralled with the fast-paced environment of photojournalism and also being challenged to retool her meticulous, time-consuming approach to photography.

Meeteetse Saloon - DEBORAH HARDEE

"In art school, you learn how to print very methodically. In the newspaper business, I learned a couple of things: one, how to be aggressive, get to the front, push your way there. And two, get the shot, get it in a hurry," explains Hardee.

Her jaunt in newspaper photojournalism led to more work in commercial photography. Though her assignments have varied enormously—sometimes requiring her to hang out of a helicopter or reconstruct a suburban hostage scene—there remains a pervasive element that is prodigiously Hardee.

Edelweiss - DEBORAH HARDEE

"I have always seen within Deborah's commercial work an interest and passion of vintage images that has always manifested itself through everything that she does," says Crist. "You'll always see the images that she'll shoot for any job kind of showing up a different way. The thread for me is there's this conceptual look at things. There's what you see through the lens and then there's what you don't see that is so powerful within her work."

Through the '90s, Hardee displayed her work in an assortment of Boise galleries, including J Crist and Stewart Gallery. Her most important show to date is a 2001 solo show at the Boise Art Museum titled, "Deborah Hardee: New Work." For this exhibit, Hardee resuscitated the chemically-noxious art of daguerreotype—a mid-19th century method of exposing an image on a mirrored silver plate. The exhibit displayed an assortment of people with their faces twisted mid-sob and their cheeks streaked by tears. The images were a powerful exploration of sadness, yet felt insincere when extracted from their original context. Hardee elaborates that the series was intended to be ambiguous, and in a way, to hold a mirror up to the viewer. Though some, like Crist, thought the de-contextualization of emotion in "New Work" was a puzzling stray from Hardee's previous work, others, like local photography collector Gary Bettis, were enticed by the exhibit's exacting method.

"The subject matter could've been entirely different and I would have been just as enthused about it because of her talent and her efforts at the creation of the image and the process," says Bettis. "The subject matter wasn't really the point—I like it, it's very interesting—but if it had been something else, I'm sure I would've been just as enthusiastic."

Bettis commissioned Hardee to do a portrait of the linear view from his favorite reading chair through his backyard window, which also showed at BAM in 2005. Bettis is adamant about only collecting work from artists he likes personally, and Hardee, he emphasizes, he likes very much.

Hardee's work, to those familiar, is irreparably attached to her empathetic personality. Through her lens, Thelma in a ball-gown leaning seductively over her porch railing appears as a delicately powerful, widowed ex-Southerner who's made the most of what she has. In the same way, textured red wallpaper peeling away from musty taxidermy in a decaying Wyoming restaurant, with Hardee's touch, conjures up the inextricable beauty of history and place, of man and nature. Hardee is able to relish, and capture, the unusual without imposing a detached sense of irony. As Crist puts it, "She makes pictures, and she just happens to use photography."