Petrographs are silver gelatin images printed on stone. My name—Petro—means rock in Greek. A stroke of luck, or fate.
View cameras have been called, “three-legged devices that draw a man’s shadow to stone.” Petrographs do the same thing. By casting and briefly fixing our shadows to the bedrock, they juxtapose the “snapshot” span of our mortal memories with the vastness of geological time. And that puts humans’ experience on earth back into perspective. We are not the planet’s masters. We’re just one of many species passing through deep time.
I grew up with rocks in the house—my father was a mineral collector—but I don’t make petrographs for keeps. After harvesting rocks from rivers, seabeds, and quarries, I coat them in photographic emulsion, print them with images from the human sphere, and return them to their original locations. Then time, water, sunlight, and weather do their erosive work as I record the process with my camera. The results, revealing the rocks’ images as they’re distorted, obscured, and weathered by ever-shifting environmental factors, evoke in days the passage of years, and tether us to natural cycles of decomposition and replenishment. The installations, which scientists assure me have no ill-effects on their host eco-systems, are fleeting. Our images disappear, and the rocks return to their own silent business.
Petrographs insist that our lives are snapshot moments, but also that we belong to the earth—that it is our home. Their insistence on our place in the natural order is a sometimes beautiful, occasionally unnerving reminder of how place shapes us—the rocks’ histories, formed and distorted by glaciers, ancient seas, fire, and ice, become miniature landscapes that give mass and form to our memories—and how everything we do imprints, for better or worse, on the environment.
All of the images pictured are scans of original, silver gelatin photographs taken on site at the installations. No images have been altered in Photoshop or other computer programs in any way.
All images are for sale. Please contact Pamela Petro for more information.
Mill River & Sandwich Beach Installations
MILL RIVER INSTALLATION, 2006
These images of are from my third Mill River Installation in Western Massachusetts. The petrographs were in the river for four days, and consequently betray signs of erosion and decay. When I returned to pick them up on the 5th day most were gone. I was angry at first, but eventually decided that the “erosive effects” of any installation include pilfering. There were a few left, however, which came to the attention of a little girl who told me she finally had proof that the river was a magic place.
“See?” she said, pointing to one of the battered images. “Today the rocks have faces.”
SANDWICH BEACH INSTALLATIONS, 2006
When I got to Sandwich Beach, on Cape Cod, a storm was already brewing. Earlier that year I’d collected granite rocks from the beach, and returned with about 60 petrographs. The sea was so strong that I came home with five—all the others were lost. The four images in the montage that comprise the first Sandwich Beach selection were taken at the water’s edge in rough surf over a period of maybe 10 seconds, as sand and foam churned around the rock.
The original shot of me as a baby was also taken on a Cape Cod beach. I returned it to the sea, on a rock, 45 years later.
Storytellers’ Cairn & Fleeting Fossils
STORYTELLERS’ CAIRN, 2007
I built this cairn in Childs Park in Northampton, Massachusetts, with chunks of silvery local micaschist. The rocks were printed with images of oral storytellers from the American South, whose portraits I’d taken years before while researching a book. Geologist Anita Harris has said, “Rocks remember. Rocks record events that took place at the time they were formed.” Which makes rocks the planet’s storytellers. I liked the idea of pairing them with human storytellers who record events with words.
The cairn stood for three weeks in rain and snow, eroding and oxidizing human memories as the rocks silently endured.
FLEETING FOSSILS, 2007
In fall, 2007 I gave a group of senior citizens and fourth-graders single-use cameras and told them to record their lives. Then, using a “portable darkroom”—a refrigerator-size framed box with a black skirt and a hole for a slide projector on top—I made 25 silver gelatin prints in large format directly on the sidewalks of Northampton. Finally, I recorded these “fleeting fossils”—brief, acutely angled glimpses from either end of life—as they were worn away by foot traffic and weather. The process became a kind of unintentional performance art, aided by college students and homeless men.
Tides, New Brunswick & Faces in Nature
TIDES, NEW BRUNSWICK, 2008
I made this installation in the Bay of Fundy, in Canada, which has the highest, most erosive tides in the world. The differential means that seaweed, mud, bubbles, and even minnows race up and down inlets in the fast-flowing current. These pictures capture debris rushing over the petrograph portraits on the outgoing tide. The speed and shallowness also made for a wealth of pattern in the currents, which caught the late afternoon sun, altering the mood of the images.
FACES IN NATURE, 2009
This installation visualized a dialogue between the human sphere of downtown Northampton and the natural world that clings to the green periphery around the city. I first photographed pedestrians on in-town streets and then combed woodlands, fields, and meadows for nature’s cast-offs: pinecones, branches, leaves, bark, feathers, fungus. Then I printed the portraits on the natural detritus. It was a learning process. Maple leaves took an image but oak didn’t (it had to be primed first); sycamore bark printed but not pine. Then I returned the “naturegraphs” to the places I’d found them and waited for them to settle back into their environments—a patience-testing process if ever there was one.
Ghosts of Overbrook & Mary and Menna
GHOSTS OF OVERBROOK, 2009-10
Overbrook was a mental hospital in Cedar Grove, NJ that opened in 1896 and closed in the 1990s. Its campus has been ceded to Essex County as parkland, but until the county claims it the 100 year-old buildings crumble and the magnificent trees of its arboretum die of neglect. Late on a winter’s day, walking my dog there, I found a pile of slate roofing tiles next to a razed building. I took the tiles and also took photos of Overbrook’s trees, then printed the images on the tiles, which I returned to the campus months later, in spring, to give the place back its memories. Overbrook is known as the most haunted spot in New Jersey.
“Ghosts of Overbook — A Fable,” featuring petrographs from this installation, was published in the inaugural issue of The Ocean State Review, Vol I, No 1, in June 2011. Click here to read a version from my blog: http://ghostsofoverbrook.blogspot.com
MARY AND MENNA, 2009 – Present
Mary, my best friend, died of cancer in 2004. When I travel I carry several of her petrographs with me and photograph them in different settings, allowing them to evolve and change, even though she no longer can. These images were taken in various locations in the Northeastern US.
The Menna Series is based on an image of the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn taken on a hill called Carn Ingli, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, and placed in a tidal inlet in Massachusetts. It is a tribute to Menna’s tireless dissemination of Welsh language and literature on both sides of the Atlantic.
Historic Northampton Museum – A.P.E. Gallery – Northampton Center for the Arts: “Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing,” Fall 2013.
“Through Your Eyes.” Juried web exhibition of work by National Park Service Artists in Residence, 2012.
Forbes Gallery, Northampton, MA: “Follow the River,” juried bi-annual show. October, 2011.
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ: solo exhibition, “Pamela Petro: Petrographs,” January-February 2011.
Faces Gallery, Northampton, MA: “Faces in Nature: Prints from Woodland Petrographs,” May-June, 2009.
Ridgefield Guild of Artists, Ridgefield, CT: “Camera Works 2009. Show juried by Nat Trotman, Assistant Curator at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum of Art. April-May 2009.
Northampton Center for the Arts, Northampton, MA: “Memory Meets Stone,” solo exhibition of petrographs and photographs. 8-30 January 2008.
Artwell Gallery, Torrington, CT: “Captured Moments.” Juried show, May 2007.