A few weeks ago, I was invited to a photography exhibit at Say Lulu, a salon in San Diego’s East Village. I was a bit skeptical, not because of the location (I once attended an exhibition in a tiny bathroom where the artist had sketched a series of tiny nudes on the wall next to the toilet), but because I was suffering from what I can only describe as a light case of hysterical blindness brought on by a continuous assault of banal images which made it extremely hard to filter or focus on what’s important or beautiful. My ability to respond to images had all but shut down. In short, I did not expect to be impressed. I certainly didn’t expect to be moved, but the photographs by Rommel Olaes were unusually compelling.
The show was divided into two categories: Objects and People. His object selections were definitely good. I’m sure those who know and understand the fine techniques of photography would compliment the wonderful use of lighting and the exquisite composition. But it was his images of the forgotten, the lonely, and the heartbroken that were especially intriguing. We’re all guilty of turning away from the sick or needy, but Rommel challenges viewers to look closer. The Invisibles (shown below), an image of a homeless man with a curved spine begging on a city street was one of the most captivating images of the show. I overheard one guest marvel, “I can’t stop looking at this.” Rommel has the ability to capture people in still moments as the world expands and moves around them which gives some of the shots a sense of motion while inspiring a sort of breathlessness in the viewer. It was as if the guests were poised on the edge of a series of dramatic scenes, waiting to see what happens next. I felt like my vision was clear for the first time in a long time. This is the power of visual story telling. It can heal hysterical blindness.
Of course, it would be unforgivable to dismiss the object selections entirely. They were gorgeous. The images of cars, ferris wheels, piggy banks and especially buildings offer a thumbnail view into the story of Rommel. He is an architect who just happens to be a photographer. His architectural sensibilities are evident in the scale and symmetry of his work. It’s also easy to see that for him, when crafting a visual story, the buildings play just as big of a role as the people. Everyone and everything has a story and Rommel is there to bear witness and document as much as he can. “There is definitely a sense of voyeurism to all of it- the building and the people” He states. Rommel has sculpted, painted and sketched, but none of the mediums allowed him the more instant gratification of photography. He is influenced by artist such as Rothko and Basquiat, as well as television and movies- most notably a particularly poignant scene from the forever relevant Before Sunrise. He often gives his photographs poetic and melancholy titles such as previously mentioned, The Invisibles or The Past is Present (not shown) which give the images a raw, but elegant subtext.
I had the opportunity to sit with Rommel and go through some of his photos. Before meeting, we agreed that I would pick a group of photos to discuss during our meeting and he would comment or provide some background on them. I sifted through hundreds of photos on his flickr page and finally picked six. He too, picked a group and we were stumped on which ones to bring to Sugarberry. Finally, we came up with a brilliant idea: I would get the hell out of his way and he would choose six images to show Life on Sugarberry. Take a look.
To view more photos by Rommel Olaes go to http://www.flickr.com/people/rommelolaes