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Stem Rises

The first issue of an Arcata-based photography magazine


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Lack of dedicated exhibition space poses a challenge for area artists, particularly students and recent grads. In the case of Humboldt State University photography students Elijah Howe and Jake Langston, deficit became a spur to creativity. In search of a space where their work could be seen, Howe and Langston founded a new photography journal called Stem, which launched in January.

Having got my hands on a copy, I can confirm that Stem looks as sharp on paper as it does on the curated Instagram feed of the same name. Layout keeps images front and center, surrounding them with generous borders of white space. An unattributed essay leans on the work of photo critic Roland Barthes to make some points about the medium's inherent nostalgia — its capacity to freeze time, time-stamping whatever it frames. "Each image is a single drop that contributes to an ocean of meaning," the author(s) write. "These images, while totally separate in conception, speak of something universal when brought together."

I don't know about universal but no doubt the people, places and things depicted here brush up against one another in interesting ways. A photo by Claire Grove shows a young woman with short, curly, two-tone hair who stands with her back to a front door, gaze averted, scanning her phone. In a portrait by Aly June, a large man wearing a peacock blue tracksuit sits on a bench. He is viewed from midriff level and his face is obscured by a mask fashioned from a stocking cap and a ballpoint pen. Jacky Montalvo's grainy black and white close-ups skim the surfaces of nude bodies, documenting intimate moments of contact and restraint.

Turning the pages of Stem, you see front stoops, neon signs and long American cars cruising blurrily past in the night. A slim, black-haired girl poses outdoors on a sunny day for Sofia Sierra-Garcia, wearing a long white dress with sneakers, turning her face away from the camera. The photo on the facing page, by Montalvo, shows a vision of the morning after. A young man sleeps with abandon, sprawled on pleather in the morning sun. One gray Croc has remained in place, while its mate has slipped unheeded to the rug. The pint glass, half empty (half full?) is still positioned within reach.

It's refreshing to come across a document of the local scene that doesn't foreground place or seek to trade on the county's undeniable reservoirs of God-given natural splendor. Expect images that revel in the place's less familiar aspects. One photograph by Joey Kleist frames a near-abstract view of colossal boulder forms; another features a long-haired, trenchcoat-clad man stepping purposefully away from a derelict building that's half-choked by brambles and graffiti tags.

Adam Jonston contributes a lushly colored view of travelers waiting in morning light at the Arcata airport's single gate. In Chloe Denson's photograph, a DJ spins records inside a cocoon of aqua light; in one by Howe, the subject, cropped at knee level and lit from the neck down, is rendered anonymous so the story becomes her crepey sunburn and the wildly swirling pattern of her sleeveless blouse.

I asked the Stem co-founders, both HSU photography seniors, about their influences. "I admire the work of Peter Beste and his focus on documenting unique subcultures from around the world," Langston responded.

"Humboldt State University instructor Gina Tuzzi planted the idea in my head that limited runs of publications can be special because there is a finite amount of them, making each one more valuable. That was the main inspiration for this project," Howe wrote. "I admire a lot of western landscape photography," he added, "how it uses vacancy and loneliness as a subject. I also was really inspired by J.H. Engstrom's book Haunts. It consists of many different kinds of pictures in different styles that are brought together into one body of work by sequencing."

Howe and Langston respond readily to the question every would-be publisher in a digital world must address up front: Why a print magazine now? "I think one of the major difficulties with being a photography student is that you do a lot of small projects and usually they just end up on Instagram or a website," Howe said. "I wanted to give small artists the opportunity to have their work exist in a physical publication that can be touched and shared with a wide range of people, without the burden of monetary cost scaring them away."

"Printed media requires a specific participation from the viewer," Langston observed, "which provides a different experience when viewing the artwork. As posting photographs online has become the industry norm, having art featured in a publication gives a new relationship between art and viewer."

It's been a busy month for the duo behind Stem — especially Howe, who's exhibiting a photo series at Redwood Arts Association, David Got Lost, in which rhythmically composed image triads alternate with telegraphic sentence fragments. As for the future of Stem, Howe said, "We plan on creating more issues with different themes. I'm hoping submissions will continue to increase and hopefully we can eventually do more in depth projects with individual artists to help people get their work seen."

The second issue of Stem comes out in February. Follow Stem on Instagram @Stem.Magazine

Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.


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