Within the Light is the title we chose when I had the opportunity to work with artist Marion Gray to produce a small retrospective exhibition of her work for the Oakland Museum of California in 2015. It made sense to me in many ways: photography, certainly, depends on light. And while many of the under-the-radar performances, events, and installations she photographed took place in the dark, or in relative dark, they too depended on some exposure. Seeing requires light and preserving and sharing requires more, since the camera is less sensitive than the eye. Marion shared by staying in motion between performances, and by moving in the shadows around them with her camera. She opened her aperture to let in enough light to catch an impression, on her negatives, of things happening at twilight or in a twilight mood: swirling apparitions holding lights in their hands as they danced in a dark room, for instance, in Nina Wise and Terry Fox’s Yellow Duck and Tonka Beans (1978), or performances by Contraband, Survival Research Laboratories, Darryl Sapien, Jules Beckman, Jess Curtis, Keith Hennessy, and many others that took place in pits of urban decay in the middle of the city, in or at abandoned forts at its periphery, under highway overpasses, or in empty parking lots.
Of course, photography relies on the shutter as well as the aperture. Within the camera, the light has to intersect within the time, a reminder that feels especially poignant now that Marion’s shutter has quietly closed for the last time. As her daughter Jennifer Tincknell puts it, “Her gift was full immersion.”1 She tended to, “focus on detail and texture that conveyed the weight and presence of the moment captured rather than getting the shot that presents an overview.”2 Take for example a 2008 shot of the performance Songs of Ascension by Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, which took place in a silo-like tower that Hamilton built north of San Francisco in Geyserville. The photograph, focusing on a single body and the reflections that surround it in a pool of water at the bottom of the silo seems to hold the energy of the performance more than those shots of the silo rising above the pool, even if those give more context. For an interview that accompanied the publication of a portfolio of images by Marion Gray in the summer 2010, Talking Cure, Jarrett Earnest commented on the way her photographs functioned outside of the assumed “clinical purpose” of documentary photographs: “[T]hey’re not ‘documents’ as much as very personal sharings, and you get these wonderful things. They are kind of bizarre, if you[‘re] thinking about them ‘showing what happened’ in the future, but then they show it in another, perhaps truer way.”3
Marion was passionate about time-based live works, but she did photograph work that was not performance-based as well. Even her photographs of sculpture felt as if they were about a certain moment, and about time and movement. Robert Arneson’s “Portrait of George (Moscone)” Sculpture at Opening of Moscone Center (1981), for instance, was about compromised display and viewers’ experience of it. Other images, as in her photographs of sculptural installations by Brian Goggin or Harold Paris, communicate movement and precarity rather than monumentality.
How much seeing fits within one lifetime? Marion often said that she was grateful to have found a practice about which she felt so passionately, and this created a drive to see and keep seeing. Knowing and showing up was a large part of Marion’s work. She taught a class for many years at the City College of San Francisco called “Touring the Art Around You.” Marion’s immersion was remarkable because she pushed herself to tour and see as much as she could, every day, even with kids in tow, even as cancer attempted to slow her down in her final years. Marion’s life work was about relentlessly pursuing shafts of light cast by creative energy, within the Bay Area artistic community she made her home, and beyond. It was also about casting that light herself, about building and supporting through fierce devotion and friendship and perseverance and an extreme generosity of spirit.
Marion Gray passed away on September 2, 2016.
She is missed by many.
Her light remains.