The sixteen landscapes in Unmarked, a new exhibition by Stephen Chalmers, are beautiful messengers carrying remembrance. Each of the images is titled with the name or names of the people who were found there, as these are all places where the bodies of murder victims were abandoned. By wrapping these sites in the light of day, a light that brings out colors of life in every scene, Chalmers gives us a chance to transcend the infamy of the crimes that necessitated the making of these pictures. In lieu of sensationalism, Unmarked offers the opportunity to reflect upon the human dignity of those who died at these places.
Chalmers makes excellent use of selective focus in these images, training the standards of his large-format camera directly on the spot where the body was recovered. This selective focus screens unnecessary detail in the landscape, and it functions as a metaphor for turning our act of remembrance away from the killers to the victims.
As spring approaches, it may seem difficult to attend to ideas of death. Certainly Chalmers, who is a trained social worker, former emergency medical technician, and professor, wasn’t thinking about the end of life a couple years ago on a gorgeous fall day when he and his partner Diane went out for a hike on Tiger Mountain, Washington State. After enjoying the serenity and beauty of the woods, they were later told by a friend that along those same paths they had hiked a serial killer had left the heads of three of the people he killed.
This sudden shift between the verdancy of the trail landscape and a long ago piece of shocking news triggered the research that would eventually become the images in Unmarked. Not having much of an interest in true crime media himself, Chalmers got the help of a team of assistants to combs through thousands of pages of trail records, police reports, and books to locate potential sites to photograph.
In the spirit of the series, all of this research is targeted at redeeming the memory of the dead. The exact spot where the body was found is important to the artist and the series, as this is the place where someone’s family member or friend was finally found after days or even years of fruitless yearning to have an answer to the question of a missing person’s fate. This is where the narrative of a person’s life was resolved and the painful process of healing was finally allowed to begin.
As the curator of this exhibition, I wonder if any of the friends and family of the victims who are referenced in this series have seen these pictures or know about them. Somehow, I hope that they do and that they find comfort that a different audience, far away from the crime, looks at these scenes and remembers their loved ones by name.
—Mary Goodwin is the Associate Director at Lightwork in Syracuse, New York. Light Work was founded in 1973 as a non-profit, artist-run organization. We provide direct support to artists working in the media of photography and digital imaging through residencies, publications, exhibitions, a community-access digital lab facility, and other related projects. You can email Mary Goodwin at email@example.com.