For more than a decade, photographer Beth Yarnelle Edwards has been a perfectly pleasant peeping Tom -- with permission, that is.
She gets her foot and her camera in the door in suburban homes around the world -- especially in Silicon Valley. Then she interviews residents about their daily domestic routines, their favorite rooms, what jammies they wear to watch TV on a Saturday night, working with them to re-create -- stage, if you will -- such scenes for a photograph.
The results are stunning, pseudo-reality, color shots -- nearly dreamlike, suspended-animation images of everyday suburban life: a busy mom working out to an exercise video in her toddlers' darkened playroom late at night, the only time she can
Even Edwards calls herself a "stalker of the real," yet this is no salacious snooping. She is all about truth, all about authenticity, all about art.
Photos' surreal sense
"I try to explain to people that it's a narrative, like a genre painting," said the San Francisco-based photographer, who also is an adjunct professor of English as a second language at the University of San Francisco. "I load the scenes with as much information as I can. But it's real
"And it's just so much fun peeking behind the curtain," she said, grinning. "Sometimes I can't believe I get to do this."
At least 20 of Edwards' large-scale images will be on display in her solo exhibit, "Suburban Dreams," opening with a 2:30 p.m. book signing Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California and running through June 30 as part of the museum's California Photography series.
Though her photos are admittedly staged -- something that would have been frowned upon a couple of decades ago -- the technique lends a surreal sense to each snapshot, a quality that attracted Drew Johnson, OMCA's curator of photography and visual culture. Several of Edwards' photographs are in the museum's permanent collection.
"As we are the Museum of California, we're naturally very interested in the real California feel (Edwards' work) has to it, especially the Bay Area life," Johnson said. "On the surface, these are images that are very familiar, scenes in people's living rooms, garages. But when you really take a look, there are all kinds of possible subtexts that can be teased out of them."
Johnson cites Edwards' "technical virtuosity" in making these images pop, as well as her use of lighting and color. "And the notion of staging a photograph provides this intriguing effect," he said. "It's essentially artificial. The people in the shots are clearly aware they're being photographed, we're aware they're being photographed, but it arrives at something deeply truthful that a documentary or candid photo can't convey."
Edwards started shooting this series in 1997, choosing suburban subjects because that's the world she knew best.
"The middle-class suburban life was my life since my family moved to the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1950s," she said. "The suburbs, the urban sprawl -- that was the fastest-growing segment of American life at the time, when everybody spent a lot of time in backyards and took the car everywhere."
Edwards later lived in San Carlos for 18 years until 2004, in a somewhat sleepy neighborhood at the top of a winding hill. She began talking with her neighbors and tried writing articles on that contemporary culture. Then someone suggested she take a photo class. "Immediately felt I was much more visual than I realized," she said.
Her first subjects were friends or neighbors, from blue-collar to upper-middle-class families. Gradually, she moved on to friends of friends and even total strangers. Generally, she said, people have always felt comfortable accommodating her photo requests. It's no surprise, considering her soft-spoken and sincere demeanor. "Also, I spoke the same language," she said. "I was a cultural insider."
Edwards' technique first involves a lengthy interview with her subjects, asking general -- but not leading -- questions about their lives, their homes. One family kept talking about how they were always late to everything: a daughter would be putting her shoes on in the car, eating a PowerBar and sipping a box of juice as they all rushed off to school. So Edwards had them position themselves as if speeding out the front door.
'Intention ... is to observe'
"I don't pose people, per se," she said. "I'll say, 'OK we've decided we're gonna do a Saturday night scene where you're watching TV. So what would you be eating? Wearing?' Then I'll set up my equipment and take time to let them get used to the camera, relax and resume their usual expressions and behavior."
As her work became known internationally, with shows in France and Belgium, Edwards began getting invitations from people in Europe to photograph inside middle-income homes there. She was fascinated by the different approach many Europeans took to the project. "They were more playful with it," she said. "Where a lot of Americans would say things like, 'Don't make me look fat,' in Europe, people recognized this was art, and were more relaxed about it.
"I let people know my intention is not to critique but to observe," she said. "I'm not judging them. I try to get to the intersections of the mythic and the mundane. And when I succeed, I feel I've created an image that's both specific and universal."
'Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams'
When: Saturday through June 30
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland
Cost: $12 museum admission, discounts for youths and seniors
Info: www.museumca.org, 510-318-8400