Unique Viewpoint: Marshall Pratt

Photographer Marshall Pratt in front of one of the images he captured on his travels. — File photo by Susan Safford

Few concepts matter as much in photography as how the photographer frames the image. Island native Marshall Pratt, who graduated this spring from the Boston Museum School, puts a new spin on framing in his exhibit Where the Roads Are Paved With Silver at Periwinkle Studios in the Oak Bluffs Arts District through Labor Day. Framing is just one way this young artist turns conventions sideways.

Sometimes he mats his images on old road signs or sections of game boards. Other times he uses reclaimed glass.

“I got really tired of going to photography shows with white-matted, traditionally framed photos on the wall,” he says. “I like to experiment.”

He has included one professionally framed, analog color print in the exhibit. Digital color has replaced the exceedingly caustic chemicals necessary for analog prints, according to Mr. Pratt, but archival color prints last only 30 to 40 years. “That’s one reason I hold on with such a death grip to black and white prints, because they’re indelible,” he says.

“I like to try to extrapolate the experience, the feeling, what the photo leaves out,” says Mr. Pratt, who at the age of six won a Tisbury Fair Honorable Mention for his photo of a flamingo.

An inveterate collector, he has put some of his found objects between the covers of what he calls “This Is Not a Book.” It contains writings, photographs and “garbage” — whatever appeared in front of him. “A good piece of garbage is as good as 1,000 photos as a document of a place,” he says.

The frame reverberates in the black and white photos he took in the Lower Ninth District in New Orleans. Mr. Pratt visited New Orleans with Stan Strembicki, a family friend who heads the photography department at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo, in January 2007. They spent their time photographing schools and Baptist churches.

Mr. Pratt felt uneasy about entering and photographing New Orleans homes. Even if their owners had been flooded out and might or might not be coming home, he found it invasive. “It didn’t give me the right to go in and catalog their lives,” he says.

Instead he concentrated on gravesites, and his images underline the contrast between how poor people are buried below ground, often in cardboard since it disintegrates faster, and the more affluent lie in often elaborate above-ground crypts.

Mr. Pratt’s eye for the telling detail emerges in his observation that many of the below-ground graves were for U.S. Armed Forces soldiers, because the military supplied brass plates for the stones. One found object included in the exhibit is a faded image of a New Orleans wedding party.

A second set of images illustrates celebrations that took place after the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons.

“All you saw were the [federal agents] in moon suits shoveling muck out of houses, and five marching bands playing harder, faster, and more passionately than I’d ever seen,” the photographer says. Displaced residents had been bused back for the bands’ concert for one day.

“I was one of three Caucasians,” Mr. Pratt says. “But there was no ill will, no hairy eyeballs, or sideways glances. I left crying like a little baby.” He also shows photographs of white tourists on Bourbon Street, where rehabilitation funds have been concentrated.

Another wall of his photographs originated from a visit to Brasov, Transylvania, in Romania, where his girlfriend Inas Al-Soqi, also an artist, grew up. “I had been to Budapest and Prague on a high school German class trip,” he says. He describes those cities as “Eastern Europe light.”

Mr. Pratt’s Romanian photographs reflect his reaction to the westernization process Romania is undergoing. “The way people react if you’re American is they assume you’re rich,” he says.

In one powerfully ironic image, Mr. Pratt has superimposed a Xerox transfer of former Romanian President Nicolae Ceasescu onto an election poster urging, “Alege Bine!” (Choose Well). Another is a full-scale replication of a Romanian roadside Jesus chapel, filled with Americana like tractor lights, matchbox cars, and an Indian figurine.

“One thing that really got me was the emergence of big-box stores,” Mr. Pratt says of his visit to Romania. In one of his photographs, a tourist vendor near the castle of “Vladimir Tepes” (Dracula), displays not the expected souvenirs, but Spiderman masks, light sabers, and salt and pepper shakers shaped like big-busted women. Ms. Al-Soqi’s late grandmother was mystified by Mr. Pratt’s pocketing a discarded American-flag air freshener, which appears in the exhibit.

Another section contains images of America’s gun culture. “In the month after Obama was elected, gun sales increased threefold,” Mr. Pratt says. When he went to the Kittery Trading Post in Maine, he found one third of the racks empty. The guns had been sold.

A large shadow box, Castle Bravo’s Magnificent Microscopic Cabaret, reflects the protean Mr. Pratt’s recent interest in collage and construction. His love of Americana led him to adopt the pseudonym Castle Bravo, code name for the first American hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Island. He’s produced tee-shirts and other materials and blogs at castlebravostoleyourface.blogspot.com.

After traveling in Europe this fall, Mr. Pratt plans to spend the winter on-Island. Then he and Ms. Al-Soqi expect to move to New Orleans.