One of the most cherished photographs Marty Fromm ever took was of an older black woman in south Georgia. Fromm was at Georgia Southern University getting his journalism degree in the early 1980s, and he and his friends would regularly see the woman in her yard. He always wanted to meet her and take her picture, so one day he introduced himself.
“And she said, ‘Idella Hollaway, that’s my name,’” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, Idella, I’ve got a lot of friends who’d like to meet you.’ And she says, ‘I don’t meet ’em here, I meet ’em on the other side.’ And that’s always stuck in my head. I’ve often thought about what is the other side, and if that’s the other side, what side is this?”
Fromm’s home art studio overflows with rusted objects and homemade wooden boxes. Bins scatter the shelves, organized (somewhat) into round objects, square objects and glass, among other things. Weathered black and white portraits hang on the wall alongside medical pictures of cadavers distorted into angelic looking creatures. Other photographs are hued in vintage-looking colors and glued into Altoid boxes. Still more have a ghostly graininess obscured further by bubbled glass. Strange “found” objects like car engine parts, prescription pill bottles and laboratory tubes surround most of the images. In each, little wooden doors open up to smaller pictures and objects.
“A lot of them they have doors to open,” Fromm says, “or they’ll have a magnifying glass to look through. So there’s a definite front and back, inside-outside, other side. And who’s looking at who?” He pauses a moment and laughs. “Sometimes it’s like they’re looking at me.”
Fromm’s Missoula studio is his sanctuary, and the collection of work he creates with odd, often haunting objects is his version of the “other side.”
“This is the key to madness,” he says, opening up one small door to pull out a key. As he does this, he realizes there’s also a small plastic leg inside the box. “I don’t know what this leg is doing in here, but I kind of like it. I didn’t put it in there. I don’t know where it came from. It appeared.”
Fromm taught in the photography department at the University of Montana from 1992 to 2007 before moving into the media arts department. His work has shifted over the years into mixed media sculpture, though he almost always incorporates photographs. His newest collection of work is called Shambolic Sanctuary and will open at Gallery Saintonge July 9. It’s a series of washed out or manipulated photographs glued into Altoid tins—one utilizes a sardine can—set inside wooden boxes which are painted in glossy, textured colors. Magnifying glass helps distort some photos and metal washers are used as smaller framing devices.
The evolution of Fromm’s work goes something like this: He tried to master the technical end of photography, and finally felt like he had it down. Then one day he read a quote from photographer Edward Westin about how only the lens could render a picture so perfectly.
“And I thought, ‘Well, what else can a lens do?’ I took a strip of negatives and threw them on my dark room floor and went like that,” Fromm says, grinding his foot into the floor. “And then I started taking photographs out of focus…”
Soon, Fromm began looking for other ways to package his photographs. He says he began to focus on the frame rather than just the photo.
“I wanted to make more of an impact than a photograph framed,” he says. “It started with buying old frames, making the frame have some meaning... And it kept expanding where I started building boxes and using found things.”
The photographs Fromm uses for his sculptures are often found objects. For instance, years ago, when his grandmother died, Fromm inherited a stack of black and white photos, the logic being that he was the family photographer.
“Nobody knew who they were except my grandmother,” he says, “and the names weren’t written down so I had all these anonymous relatives.”
He points to a large portrait on the wall, a silhouette of person blackened by the misfire of a flash. He calls it “Distant Relation,” inspired by the idea of sharing a bloodline with people in a photograph who are essentially strangers.
Fromm collects photos of unrelated, actual strangers, too.
“Nobody knows who they are,” he says. “All the work is about time and what time does to things and to us. And there’ll come a time after we die when nobody who’s left on the planet knew us. That’s what happens to these photographs.”
The overflow of objects extends outside the studio, where larger chunks of wood lay stacked and smaller pieces that Fromm has glued together—such as small pictures inside cigarette cases—sit drying in the sun.
“Usually I have a big tub full of water out back,” he says. “I call it my rust-orium, and I throw metal stuff in there and let it rust. It looks really good. I can’t replicate it as good as it happens.”
If Fromm’s “other side” world seems a bit dark, there’s a reason. In his early 30s he was diagnosed with depression. Some of the art that came out of that time was bleaker—a sculpture with an on/off switch called “Suicide Note,” for instance. But Fromm read a book by William Styron called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, and found some inspiration in delving into darker corners of his mind, to the chagrin of his shrink. Fromm says, it brought him to a more peaceful, happier co-existence with his “internal landscape.”
“I never felt like some deep dark character, you know, I was actually pretty happy-go-lucky,” he says. “I love to laugh, but there is this other side that I didn’t even know was there until I got so depressed.”
He found some humor, as well, in the characterization of depression and “inner child” psycho-philosophy. He constructed a gruesome sculpture with a medical picture of a baby’s body, pasted into a coffin-like box lined with prescription vials.
“In reality that’s sort of what I was—this injured baby,” he says. “But [the sculpture] was kind of a joke, like, ‘I got your fuckin’ inner child right here, buddy.’”
Shambolic Sanctuary means what it seems: A safe place for chaos. The new series, Fromm says, is far from the morbid themes of his early depression; even with all its haunting visuals, it celebrates a certain beauty of the psyche. And, he says, it’s about the haunting portraits of strangers.
“I think we’re all interested in each other and interested in looking at people,” he says. “After all these years, I still wonder, what is my obsession with the human face?…Why do I enshrine them this way, you know? I guess, I just want to give these people a new life.”
Marty Fromm’s Shambolic Sanctuary opens at Gallery Saintonge Wednesday, July 9. An artist’s reception will be held Friday, July 11, at 5 PM. Free.