Photographer Gary Irving’s new series explores humanity’s dark side
By Damon Orion
Local multimedia artist Gary Irving has never been one to shy away from dark subjects.
In the past, he has used everything from zombies to alien abductions as themes for his vivid, cinematic-looking composite photos. Irving takes a painterly approach to his work, using his Photoshop skills to create instantly striking pictures that more than live up to his tagline of “images unrestricted by reality.”
In his latest series, Irving uses the Christian symbolism of the deadly sins to shine a light on humanity’s gluttony, greed and disrespect of nature, which manifests in overconsumption and pollution. As opposed to the seven deadly sins more commonly known in the present day, Irving has titled his exhibit Eight Deadly Sins—a reference to the concept of eight cardinal sins that prevailed before Pope Gregory I revised the list in 590 A.D.
Eight Deadly Sins is set in the Elizabethan era, a turning point in history just prior to the invention of the steam engine and the subsequent rise of the oil engine, fossil fuels and plastic. To replicate the look of the time period, Irving rented costumes from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.
“I lucked out,” the Welsh-born photographer explains. “Because of the size of the people, there were only seven dresses that [fit the models]; then it went into really large dresses.” Happily, no costume was needed for the final piece in the series, VAINGLORY (Vanity), which consists of a mirror within a stylized frame.
This is the first series in which Irving used only one light source for his photos. “I didn’t want that many shadows on [the models’] faces,” he says. “I wanted them to look kind of like porcelain, like from the olden days when they used to make themselves white.”
The one-off casings for these photographs are works of art unto themselves. Irving has crafted elegantly ominous skeletons, skulls and ravens within black frames whose arch-like shapes serve as a reminder of the Catholic Church’s hardline stance on cardinal sins.
Every picture in this series shows a different female representing Mother Nature. Between each subject’s hands is an item that represents the sin for which the piece is named. For example, in GULA (Gluttony), a stark-faced woman holds a fish skeleton with a bar code, symbolizing the genetic modification of fish and the evolution of fish farming as consequences of overfishing. Irving feels this exemplifies our society’s waste and overconsumption of food.
“I would have never thought in my day that there wouldn’t be fish in the ocean, and we’d have to make them,” he muses. “To me, that’s surreal, and it’s been going on forever.”
SUPERBIA (Pride) deals with the smugness that humans display as they poison themselves. The portrait’s subject holds a bottle made of BPA and topped with a red cap that looks suspiciously like a Coca-Cola bottle cap. As Irving explains, the Coca-Cola Company continues to manufacture these unrecyclable caps in spite of the fact that they have killed millions of birds.
“Almost every dead shorebird found has a piece of that [Coca-Cola bottle cap] in its stomach,” he says. “They think it’s a crustacean, so they eat it.”
ENVIDIA (Envy) explores our tendency to covet each other’s material possessions. It specifically targets our collective fetish for fancy cars, which leads to the overuse of fossil fuels. This particular picture was the last one that Irving shot for the series.
“I just couldn’t think what it was going to be,” he recalls. “I was driving home, and a Johnny Cash song came on. I think the lyric was, ‘Driving my car with dinosaur bones.’” In spite of the fact that fossil fuels do not actually come from dinosaur remains, the lyric was enough to kick-start Irving’s creative process.
In ACEDIA (Sloth), we see a cyber-ized infant representing the birth of electronics—a development that Irving feels has made us lazy. “We’ve got one-wheeled things that we can ride around on instead of walking,” he notes with a laugh. “We’re all on phones. With spellcheck, you don’t need to learn to spell.”
Asked which of these deadly sins Irving himself is most guilty of, the photographer ventures, “Well, I drive a truck, so I daresay it would have to be the oil.” He quickly buffers this admission with an explanation that although he has an electric car, he was obligated to buy a gas-powered truck in 2004 when he took a gig shooting for Fox Racing and Transworld Motocross in unpopulated parts of Utah, Moab and England. “My truck is fully self-sufficient and can get me out into the wilderness for weeks on end, looking for those empty, barren lands to shoot my backdrops,” he explains.
The Eight Deadly Sins exhibit opened at Irving’s Westside Santa Cruz studio (located at 1010 Fair Ave, Ste. K in Santa Cruz) on Sept. 1. It will move over to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in January, but, in the meantime, seeing these pictures in their natural habitat makes a perfect way to ring in the dark season.
Learn more at garyfoto.com.