© Jenny Riffle
When the California Gold Rush began in late 1848, drawing hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers to the state, at least part of the appeal for the 49ers must have been the thrill of the search, the desire for adventure and exploration. Who wouldn’t trade the desperation of poverty or the grind of the everyday for the hope of striking it rich in parts unknown? The search for gold is ingrained in the narrative of American history, but the treasure-hunting impulse must be as old as wealth, and it exists at some stage in the minds of nearly every young person.
The idea that fortune exists out there for those willing to seek it, is at the heart of Jenny Riffle’s series “Scavenger: Adventures in Treasure Hunting,” which opens in a solo exhibition this month at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon. Riffle’s images focus on a young-adult, male character’s search for treasure in the form of gold, or of lost or forgotten valuables.
Many of the images show the lone figure—who is never named—in the landscape. There are wintry beaches, riverbeds, mountains, and junkyards full of stripped and rusted automobiles. We see the man digging deep in the earth, or waving a metal detector over the ground. We look over his shoulder as he pinpoints a site on a map, or pulls something of value out of the soil, cleaning the dirt from it. We see him sitting on the floor in a room full of window light, wisps of smoke rising from a cigar, as he sorts through his find. Changes in his clothing and hairstyle from image to image reflect the passage of time.
Riffle also shows us how the scavenger lives with his discoveries, arranging them in his home into decorative, thematic collections.
“I’m interested in this adventurous spirit, wanting to convey that,” Riffle says. “The treasure hunting really comes down to being an explorer, someone who’s going out and discovering things.”
Though Riffle’s treasure hunter exists, she photographs him in such a way that she is manipulating our perception, taking what is essentially the hobby of someone she knows intimately and emphasizing the universal, romantic motivations underlying the treasure seeking. “One of the main things about photography that I’ve always been interested in,” Riffle explains, is “the mixing of fact and fiction, and I’m trying to create this [fictional] narrative, but it’s also a bit of reality and I’m mixing these two things together.”
“You can capture something that looks like real life,” she says, “but at the same time you’re cropping it, you’re hiding some things.”
The work grew out of Riffle’s interest in portraiture, which she focused on as an undergraduate. “Part of my desire to photograph people and make portraits was to be able to create a bit of a narrative about each person,” Riffle says. She began making portraits of her scavenger when she met and fell in love with him nearly nine years ago. Then in 2009, while pursuing her MFA, she decided to expand the work into a character study.
The project has little specifically to do with their relationship, Riffle says. But the years they’ve spent together are evident in the quiet affection in the images and in the hero’s journey narrative. “I am certainly romanticizing him,” Riffle explains. “I am in love with him and it all ties into, I think, part of the inspiration for me to be following him.”
For her exhibition, Riffle has made prints of her portraits and also created stereoscopic images of some of the found objects to give viewers a feeling of “peering into this world that he has created.”
“I think the objects play such a big role for him in the desire of going out there all the time and searching for these things that are not necessarily worth a lot of money,” Riffle says. “They more have a bit of a mythological value to them in the sense that he’s finding all these things and then arranging them and bringing them back, surrounding himself with them and creating these little narratives.”
There is something youthful and innocent about an adventurous spirit, and Riffle’s work encourages viewers to consider how that spirit grows or fades, and manifests itself in us as we move from adolescence to adulthood. “I think people can connect to and remember that joy,” Riffle explains. “Scavenger” also contemplates what it means to hold onto it. Says Riffle, “I don’t think everyone continues to do that.”
Jenny Riffle Photo Gallery