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Gregory Halpern and Ahndraya Parlato's Gloriously Unmoored Photographs

Their new book 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' contains photos taken only on solstices and equinoxes.

by Gideon Jacobs
Nov 6 2014, 8:00pm

If you wake up in a hospital disoriented, the doctor asks three questions:

1) Do you know your name?

2) Do you know where you are?

3) Do you know what year it is?

Person, place and time—the three fundamental dimensions of orientation, the nuggets of knowledge that keep our existential feet on the ground. Without confident answers to those generally obvious questions, we become unmoored, like splinters of conscious driftwood. And understandably, most of us tend to panic without those answers, as they are pretty much the epistemological building blocks of our existences.

Of course, a lot of smart people throughout history have had their doubts about the solidity of "person," "place," and "time." Many great artists, philosophers, scientists, theologians, and plain old everyday people who have spent a bit of time thinking about the human experience have found that sometimes these anchors aren't all that heavy. And in the project East of the Sun, West of the Moon, you get the sense that photographers Gregory Halpern and Ahndraya Parlato worked with anchors heavy enough to keep them from floating out to sea, but light enough to afford them some slack to explore.

The body of work is composed of pictures taken exclusively on solstices or equinoxes because Halpern and Parlato "liked the idea of trying to rely on two continually shifting landmarks as navigational guides" and because they wanted to see "what time looked like" and "what time felt like." It's clear that the whole solstice/equinox thing isn't just a fun concept, but a statement about orientation.

See, we can't get our bearings using "shifting landmarks." When we get turned around, we use fixed points to right ourselves. We look to the eternally stationary North Star. We look to the immovable mountains. We use the constant stuff in environments flush with variables.

But in East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the imagery by Halpern and Parlato—along with a piece of writing by Nicholas Muellner—is blanketed with this recognition that, to some extent, these constants are never constant, always shifting. It's not just that in a big bang universe everything is in motion, but also that we can really only know who, where, and when we are in relation to landmarks that also need landmarks that also need landmarks, and so on—it's turtles all the way down. In the photographs, Halpern and Parlato play with light and composition and all that, but more so, they play with a vaguely Einsteinian notion that no one is truly anchored. Or maybe, they play with the idea that we're all somewhat adrift, oriented only to the extent that we're adrift together.

To be clear, this project isn't weighed down by all this overwrought, heady thinking—it's actually rather pretty lighthearted and shot through with sincere curiosity. In other words, there's no panic in these pictures. Even the images freighted with bits of dread or pain—the defeated man with his head down in an airport cafeteria, or the scene of the crowd staring at what might be either a sunset or a brutal traffic accident—possess no real urgency. It's as if they're all a little more still than most still photographs.

Maybe the fourth question that doctor should ask if those first three are stumpers should be more open-ended: "What anchors you?"

But East of the Sun, West of the Moon isn't the kind of project that pretends to be able to answer that one either. Instead, its weight lies in the uncanny similarity between the subject (solstices and equinoxes) and the medium Halpern and Parlato use to capture it (photography). A special picture, like these special days of the year, are phenomenal in a true sense of the word. They both are the result of something that occurs when an infinite number of moving parts serendipitously relate to each other in a way that makes some sort of singular sense.

Those other 361 days a year? Those countless crappy photographs that get tossed? They are disorganized sets of zeroes and ones—readable but meaningless data. But four days of the year, like four frames out of 365 captures, things mix, match, and align in a way that feels vaguely intelligent, even planned.

We are a weird species, innately attracted to what we can grab onto and hold firmly in our hands or head. So of course we become disoriented in a world of shifting landmarks. If there are fixed points to be found, if there are orienting constants to use, they probably lie in the moments when all that arbitrary movement yields something remarkably still—when all the shifting somehow yields understanding.

Below is a gallery of photographs by Ahndraya Parlato and Gregory Halpern from their new book East of the Sun, West of the Moon, published by Études Studio this fall, including unpublished outtakes.

Gideon Jacobs is the creative director of Magnum Photos, New York. He was an actor and now is a writer, soon to publish a book called Letters to My Imaginary Friends. Follow him on Twitter.