A Mariner’s Descendant
By Nikki Segarra
a review by Tesa Pesic
In the world of photography, the name Nikki Segarra is still pretty much unknown. But for a graduate student at the Art Institute of Boston, who has had slightly over a dozen exhibitions, she is slowly but surely building a reputation thanks to her extraordinary talent. One of her newer series of photographs, A Mariner’s Descendant, which was featured at The Kiernan Gallery in Virginia, was inspired by her revelation that she comes from a lineage of mariners. Growing up in the South, and having inherited a fear of water from her mother, Nikki Segarra felt the need to pack her camera and come north, to the New England seas, to explore for herself what this part of her history was like. She notes, “I wanted to construct my own experiences within these same locations, perhaps as a way to make my mark on the familial map.”
So, she uses herself as a subject in some of the images to give emphasis that it is her family, her personal connection that is being expressed in these photographs. Boxes of evidence and family records of ancestors who drowned, and men lost at sea and the wives they left behind, have inspired an inquiry into the relationship between her fear and their experiences. In these photographs, she plays the role of a wife of a mariner. She is stepping into the shoes of the past by assuming a role that she successfully plays, and we can see how she relates to these people and their lives. She uses the landscape to construct imagery that is indicative of her emotional response to understanding the ties between her proclivities and inherited past. From looking at these photographs we can sense sorrow, lingering pain, grief, all accompanied by a dead silence. We can better understand how Segarra’s ancestors felt, what state of mind the wives of the mariners were in when their family was out at sea. We see this because of the way Segarra composes her images; her style is minimalistic – a single subject to focus on and a simple background to give emotion.
Even though there is movement in most of the photographs, in some, that movement seems frozen and stillness engrosses the image. We can see that in “The Hopeful Transport”, which depicts a young woman letting white pages of paper fly into the air. Whether they are letters or pages of a diary, they are being let go, given away to forgetfulness. She is surrounded by an almost dead field of undulating grass, far away from the camera, distant from the person capturing this moment in time. She is cold with the last grain of hope seeping from her clutched hands raised to the sky.
On the other hand, in the photograph of a woman sitting on a chair in the shallow sea, titled “Widow’s Walk”, we are anticipating her being entrapped by the water, and Segarra, who is fearful of this water, sits still, waiting, while the waves move around her. The clever thing is that her back is turned from our view, so we cannot see her face, but because of the excellent composition Segarra creates, we know what she is feeling – peace with her fate and acceptance of her past.
In order to create that feeling of the past, Segarra appropriately uses a new technique which makes each image unique and handmade. Well, not really new, just a technique being revisited today by a lot of photographers: an antique process of the mid-19th century, salt printing. With this method, the film is coated with a silver nitrate solution that when exposed to light gives a faint metallic silver image. The colors are all different shades of grey and light browns – all washed out; which also make the images more blurry and without sharp lines. This process is what gives her images a sense of past, as if they are hundreds of years old, and stem from the time she is exploring. So the decision she makes is successful. If it were done digitally, or on newer film, the understanding that this is a connection to history would be lost. And by making each of the photographs with her own hands, she is putting even more of herself into this project.
All of this is what gives this series value and a high score in my book. Being able to tell a story, one so personal, and to easily represent your own emotions as well as those of people from the past you never met, and all that through a visual art, is a big achievement. A Mariner’s Descendant by Nikki Segarra is an excellent piece of work, one that a photographer would be proud to have in his or her portfolio. It is a series of photographs everyone should see, and can do so by visiting her official site.