Re-placements: Crombie locates our cultural dreams

Video still from Kara Crombie's Portraits 1.
Video still from Kara Crombie's Portraits 1.

Have you played with smart-phone apps like Hipstamatic, Shakeit, or Poladroid? They tap into our collective nostalgia for Instamatic cameras by creating the illusion that our phones' hi-tech digital photos are old-school Polaroid pictures, replete with strange colorcasts and blown-out highlights. Ironically, such flaws conjure an ideal world of perfectly mowed lawns and backyard barbecues.

The cultural connotation of the Polaroid palette is something Kara Crombie uses to good effect in her video, Potraits 1, now screening at the University of Virginia's Niche in the Fine Arts Library. (Word to the wise: although the posted artist's description refers to Crombie's Aloof Hills, the Niche piece is a different work.)  Crombie's 10-minute short depicts scene after scene of lush green landscapes and peaceful streets, marked with the icons of idyllic American life: a stars-and-stripes mailbox, white picket fencing, a backyard picnic table, etc.

But the details of these scenes–- the glowing whites and the yellow-green casts–- imbue them with a dreamlike quality. Crombie digitally enhances and combines images to create these surreal ideals, crafting suburban or bucolic locales that are literally too good to be true. She overlays her scenic creations with a continuous soundtrack of ambient noise and tweeting birds, punctuated by the occasional barking dog.

Every few scenes, Crombie introduces another layer of unreality by superimposing single figures into her landscapes. Each character faces the camera, silently talking and making small gestures, seeming at once to be in the setting but not of it. For instance, a hipster in a hoodie crouches in a serene forest glen, or a melancholy woman wearing a black dress stands poised in sunny meadow, her hair perfectly still despite the breeze.

Always Crombie is attentive to minute details. She often restricts a shot's movement to a flitting butterfly or leaves lifted by the wind, introducing just enough motion to distinguish the scene from a still photograph. At other times, she combines time-lapse photography with video, so a pond in the background flickers in what otherwise appears to be a real-time shot.

Crombie deftly uses color not only to nudge viewers' nostalgia but also to create connections between juxtaposed locations. For example, the yellow roof of a jungle gym echoes a woman's yellow tracksuit from the previous shot.

Crombie's Portraits 1 mesmerizes with visions of an idealized world, even as its figures remind us that in reality, such places do not exist.

Kara Crombie's Portrats 1 is on view through January 3 at The Niche in the Fine Arts Library at the University of Virginia. Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, Bayly Dr. (across from the School of Architecture). For more information, visit

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1 comment

Thanks for the thoughtful column, Laura. Our blurb on Kara mentions a piece we aren't screening because Kara's more recent work, which is well worth watching and for which she was awarded the Pew Fellowship, hits all the buttons that might be problematic for some viewers - race, religion, sexuality, drug use, and Southern identity, to name a few. This is a big part of why the work is interesting; it's also a big part of why we aren't screening it. While we are very pleased to be working with the library staff who have been very supportive, complaints from patrons about past work being inappropriate have made us all sadly cautious about more challenging work. So while I think Portraits 1 works really well in the Library, I wanted to draw attention to the work of Kara's that I was actually most interested in. Anyhow, thanks again, Laura!