These seem like perfectly quiet — beautiful, even — landscapes. But read the titles and you might start to second guess how beautiful they are. The images are scenes where disposed bodies were discovered. The titles are the victims' names. That's the unsettling experience Stephen Chalmers is trying to evoke because that's the experience he had.
The series Unmarked started with an innocent hiking date near Seattle:
"We had this fantastic time; it was early in our relationship and everything was super happy," Chalmers says. But later, a friend pointed out that the hike had been right where serial killer Ted Bundy disposed of his victims.
"And just that little kernel of information really changed how I felt about what was otherwise a really fantastic early date," he says. "I was struck by how my experience of this place was so changed by knowing the history of the location."
He is kind of obsessed with this idea of what's not there. Between the photography classes he teaches at Youngstown State University in Ohio, Chalmers is currently working on another personal project: about housing demolition in a shrinking town — taking photos of locations where homes once stood.
Another, earlier project is in the same vein. Chalmers photographed roadside memorials for car accident victims after his experience as an emergency medical technician.
"I would see car accidents," he explains. "And shortly after the accident was cleared away, roadside memorials would spring up like flowers. ... And the tire tracks on the grass would heal, the bark on the trees would heal — and eventually the landscape would heal after the trauma that occurred on this site."
Chalmers has an undergraduate degree in psychology and that interest in social sciences permeates his work. The way he sees it, the media — and many Americans — will pay attention to crime scenes and perpetrators immediately after the fact, but then forget it quickly after the initial shock.
"If it bleeds, it leads," he says. "I think that we as a culture are also fascinated with the suffering of others, which is why, if you're driving home and you see a car crash, everyone kind of slows down to gawk at it."
He, on the other hand, says he can't even watch the evening news; in the making of this series, he says he tried to learn as little of the gruesome details as possible. In many cases, he hired students to do the research and find the locations. Chalmers is interested only in what's there now — or what isn't.
"I like using photography to deny information," he says. "I don't really find that photographs really tell you that much other than really superficial things — like 'this is the way that it looked when I visited that site for 1/1000th of a second on that day at that time.' "
In other words: Photos are used to provoke our imaginations. So why not strip away the sensational and allow viewers to imagine?
"I kind of like the absence of spectacle. I'm a quiet person. I like for the images I make to be quiet."
Chalmers used a large-format camera to make the photos, which have been exhibited and, if Chalmers lucks out, might also be a book.