This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 20, 2012 - Remember before everyone had pictures on their phones, and they’d whip out a bunch of snapshots of their new baby or recent Party Cove bash? Photographer Jamie Kreher’s “Equivalents,” opening Friday at Good Citizen Gallery, is kind of like that but on a much bigger scale.
Not that the photographs themselves are big. They’re a mere four inches by four inches, bucking a new trend evidenced by the new St. Louis Art Museum exhibition of large-scale contemporary photographs. In Kreher’s exhibition, it’s the volume — not the size — that’s notable.
Hundreds of photographs whose subjects range from party balloons to bathroom stalls to airplane wings will be placed on tables around the gallery. And while her old-school 1970s-looking photos are not on a phone, they do involve one: Kreher took the pictures using a Hipstamatic application on her iPhone.
The work is meant to be picked up and handled. Anything gallery visitors like, they can buy for much less than you might expect for professional photos — $4 a pop.
The affordability and accessibility of these pictures serve to bring into question ideas about preciousness, rarity and meaning in art.
“These were meaningful to me as I took them at whatever time and space I was in,” Kreher said. “I can’t guarantee they’ll mean anything to anyone else but I’m asking people to interact with them and see what happens.”
Artist boomerangs back to STL
Growing up in in unincorporated St. Louis County as an oldest child with three younger brothers, Kreher, 37, was known in elementary school as the girl who could draw.
“There are people who would have said, ‘Oh, yeah, Jamie’s the best artist of the class,’ but after I got to high school, it didn’t seem like so much fun,” Kreher said.
After graduating from Pattonville High, Kreher, the daughter of a veterinarian father and a mother who became a nurse later in life, began Truman State University focused on biology and pre-med. Elective courses drew her to sociology and photography, but she relegated taking pictures to just a hobby.
“I had in my mind that art’s not practical,” Kreher said.
After earning a degree in the also not-altogether-practical disciplines of sociology and anthropology, she worked for a couple of years as an administrative assistant in Chicago. There, Kreher realized that pursing her artistic dreams might not be such a bad idea after all, and that epiphany led her back to school and briefly to living in her parents’ house.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to be honest with myself: The only thing I’m looking forward to doing is more photography,’ so I made the decision that this is my life and I’m going to do what makes me happy,” Kreher said.
Social commentary from traffic islands
St. Louis Community College classes helped Kreher build up her skills and the portfolio she needed to get into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a masters of fine arts in photography in 2005.
Early on, Kreher described herself as a “straight photographer” whose images captured the reality in front of the camera. But soon she had the urge to become more involved in post-production and began working with repeated images in a collection called “Reconstructions.” Isolating ordinary, mass-produced geometric forms such as lamp posts, traffic lights and highway signs, Kreher created statements about the banality of today’s landscapes.
“A lot of my work kind of walks that line of tragic and comic,” Kreher said.
“Sharp, clean and minimal” is how Good Citizen’s Andrew James describes Kreher’s artistry. “I’m a big fan of repetition and using different elements of things in a creative way.”
In 2006, Kreher first displayed a series of digitally manipulated traffic islands. The work in “Some Islands” depicts what remains after the surrounding cars, black top and buildings are photoshopped out. The results are “succinct and successful,” according to Jessica Baran, assistant director at White Flag Projects gallery.
“It’s a very rich project in commenting on land use and the uselessness of a lot of antiquated thinking -- literally to plan useless plots of land,” Baran said.
Embedded in Kreher’s work, Baran said, are her sociological and anthropological influences. But there’s a twist because the behavior of the people she studies isn’t front-and-center but in the background.
“Interestingly, her work is incredibly de-populated; people don’t figure except for how they manipulate their environment,” Baran said. “Her work is very cerebral and yet it’s strangely accessible.”
Learning from teaching
Until 2008, Kreher was on her way to a successful exhibition career. Then the recession put the brakes on hers and many other accelerating professionals.
Kreher found a job teaching photography at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. In 2010, it became a full-time gig. Now she also coordinates the school’s digital photography program.
“The stars aligned and I got this position and I thought, ‘OK, this is what I am meant to be doing,’” Kreher said.
Kreher squeezes her photography in between the job and life with her arts animator husband and two cats, Carl and Minnie. While she often uses her digital SLR camera, she also still enjoys the simplicity of shooting with her iPhone, and may put together a future exhibition featuring work from both formats.
Meanwhile, Kreher enjoys having her “feet in several different worlds” and the energy she gets from teaching.
“I learn from the students every day; they often inspire me in my own art-making, so it’s a great combination,” Kreher said.