Publication Date: Friday Nov 24, 2000
An exhibit of hopeCharlene Dorman's photographs capture light and beauty in places near and far
by Karen O'Leary
When she was 5 years old, living in Lynchfield, Mass., Charlene Dorman climbed out onto the roof with her Brownie camera to photograph the tops of trees. Smitten with photography, she has been scouting and capturing images in remote places ever since, albeit with slightly more sophisticated equipment.
Images of those exotic locations will be on exhibit until Dec. 31 at Stanford University's Bechtel International Center. Entitled "Therefore I have hope," the photographs feature the countries of Nepal, India, Zaire, Italy, France and Israel. The 45 images include children, landscapes, birthing, nursing, dancing and light, and they are whimsical and deeply contemplative, much like the photographer herself.
Dorman honed her craft in the early '70s with Ansel Adams at one of his last Yosemite Valley photography workshops.
"The first thing he said when he met me was, 'Are you happy?' Dorman recalls. "From that moment on, I liked him as a person because he treated me like a person. He was like a grandfather--that's how I felt about him. He called me 'honey child.'"
Ansel encouraged his students to pair their art with other interests, as he had done with his love of nature. Consequently, Dorman has always paired her photographs with quotes from Scripture and favorite authors, including G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and Dostoyevsky.
Dorman's photography is fostered by a strong faith and imagination, a sense of humor and a profound gratitude for her art. With the curiosity and questing energy of an adventuring huntress, she seems to be on a perpetual pursuit of truth and beauty. She looks for it in books, in prayer and through the lens of her ever-primed camera.
"My husband John says there's two things I'll do at the drop of a hat: pray and take a photograph. For me, each contributes to the other," she says.
Despite the richness and balance of Dorman's candid shots, none of them have been planned, staged or digitally altered.
"It really does feel like a dance, in a sense," Dorman says. "The epiphanies are wonderful and those are what the dance part is. But there are a lot of workouts in between. You have to be available for it, to be self-disciplined in both your own spiritual life as well as having the awareness and readiness to go along--that's part of the dance, too."
"Once I was sitting with my Leica on a wall in Bombay when a hand suddenly appeared next to me on the wall," says Dorman of one of the simple, but riveting, images in her collection. "Another time I was with our children at the end of the driveway when my daughter Lydia decided to take her first steps!"
"Consuelo dancing Billie Holliday," a 1973 photo of a dancer, is an image that typifies Dorman's ability to capture both the energy and the stillness of light. "Tibeten Girl Seeing her Likeness for the First Time," a photo of a Nepalese child who had never before seen a picture of herself, exemplifies her skill at anticipating a significant moment in a child's life.
Several formats keep Dorman visually agile. A master of fast-moving candid shots, she also enjoys the meditative, pre-visualization necessary for larger-format work. She likes to take the extra time and trouble to process her work as platinum prints, a 19th century process that takes days, but which Dorman feels is worthwhile for its resulting texture and richness.
"With work that is small format, the meditative qualities come to me in the dark room as the images reveal themselves to me poetically and symbolically," Dorman says.
"In using a larger camera, with a tripod, you have a chance to do still-life and to create something. Because it's a slower process, you can plan a shot for days or weeks. But then the sun will shift a little bit and petals will become more luminous, so there are still surprises. I think of these as gifts from God and as a prize for a small amount of endurance."
"Once we were in Zaire and no sooner had I finished a quick prayer about my work that day than the driver stopped and a man stood under a tree with the mountains in the background...it was a perfect portrait of a man proud of his country."
Dorman's global photographic safaris were inspired by trips she took with her husband, John, a physician at Stanford University, during his sabbaticals.
"John feels that our family has been so blessed that when the children were being raised, he wanted to spend our summers giving back. We chose to take our family to different cultures every three or four years. It formed our children and they're really grateful for it."
"Therefore I have hope" is dedicated to John, who suffered an accident earlier this year that prompted the exhibit's title. One day while gardening, he fell out of a tree and brutally crushed his knee. Charlene had a tough time falling asleep that night, worried that he would permanently lose the use of his leg or be confined to a wheel chair. Then she heard her mind say, simply, "Therefore I have hope." Fortunately, an operation substantially repaired the damaged knee, and John has resumed his active lifestyle.
Also prominent in the exhibit are excerpts from "The Portal of the Mystery of Hope," by French poet Charles Peguyt. Faith, to him, is like a loyal wife, charity is like an ardent mother and hope is like a little sister, swinging between her older sisters' skirts.
"To me, the thing that's so special about this poem is that it points out how tiny, how little, hope is. It doesn't show. You can't exhibit hope as you do faith and love. There's something internal and tiny about it, but hope can bring you to big, big places."
What: "Therefore I have hope," an exhibit featuring the photographs of Charlene Dorman
Where: Stanford University's Bechtel International Center
When: Through Dec. 31. The center is open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Cost: Admission is free
Info: Call (650) 723-1831