Report from Chicago's Artropolis

Here is a photo of my "Treatment Room" installation. Many thanks for all who helped with the final realization of this project. If you are in Chicago, please stop by to see me in booth # 8-5113. There was a nice article written about the installation in the Pioneer Press papers.....and an essay by Karen Sinsheimer, Curator of Photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Rooms with a View to Healing
April 24, 2008
BY MYRNA PETLICKI Contributor for Pioneer Press

The psychiatrist's office may be a haven of healing for patients, but to those who have never been in therapy it's a place of mystery. Evanston social worker and award-winning photographer Jane Fulton Alt opens the doors to that world in "The Treatment Room" at Chicago's Merchandise Mart.

Alt's installation consists of a three-sided enclosure furnished like a therapist's office, including a Kleenex box. Lining the walls are photographs of Chicago-area psychiatric offices. The prints are small so that viewers must come close to see them. That seems appropriate in a setting designed for examination.

All of the photos are anonymous -- no faces are visible. You see waiting rooms, and treatment rooms with couches, comfortable chairs and, of course, those Kleenex boxes, but each office has unique aspects. One has a light box for patients affected with seasonal affective disorder. Another's bookshelf includes an anthology of poetry and works by Plato.

Collaborative work
"In some ways, this show is a little bit of a collaboration," Alt said, noting that her husband is a psychiatrist. "We've talked about it together and he has been very supportive."

The majority of the images were taken at psychiatrists' offices in Chicago, although there are photos of Alt's office, too. She is transporting her office furniture to the installation.

Alt, who has worked as a social worker for 35 years, began doing photography about 18 years ago. "When my youngest daughter reached first grade, I started taking classes at the Evanston Art Center in the different arts," Alt said. She wasn't immediately drawn to photography, though.

"I used to think that photography was for obsessive-compulsive people. I didn't understand it," Alt admitted. Then she began to see that photographic images could be powerful.

"It was easier for me to have access to what I wanted to say with a camera," Alt said, adding, "not that it was easy. It's never easy. You have to go through a lot of different renditions to get it right."

And Alt gets it right a lot.

An exhibit of Alt's photos of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, called "Look and Leave," was held at the DePaul University Art Museum in 2006.

"I think she's got an incredible eye," said art museum assistant director Laura Fatemi, who also praised the composition and clarity of Alt's images. "At the same time, there's sort of a mood that's captured in them, particularly with the Katrina pieces."

Documenting disaster
"After Katrina hit, I ended up volunteering as a social worker to go down there," Alt related. Working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, she was assigned to a program called "Look and Leave."

"I went with people back to their homes for the first time, in the Lower 9th Ward," she said. "Because I was so overwhelmed with what I saw, I decided I needed to photograph it. Those images are some of the more powerful ones I've done."

Fatemi has seen the images in Alt's "The Treatment Room." "Again, it's a very timely topic," she said, adding that Alt is once more melding her social work with her photography. "That combination is a winner," Fatemi said.

Alt, who has taken photography courses at Columbia College and the Art Institute of Chicago, indicated some reservations about bringing her work life into her photography.

"I feel a little vulnerable because it's so out there," Alt admitted. "There are some images where I'm both the patient and the therapist." On the other hand, she said, "I feel really positive about the field, and I think the pictures reflect that."

Chicago Atropolis' The Artist Project, Booth No. 8-5113, 8th f loor, Merchandise Mart, Chicago. 6-9 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday, April 24-28. $20 one day pass, $25 multiday pass.

Essay by Karen Sinsheimer
Curator of Photography
Santa Barbara Museum of Art

If the all too-familiar piles of dated magazines and the nondescript chairs and lamp weren’t a give-away, the pleasant poster on the wall announces that the viewer is in a waiting room. It is the first image in Jane Fulton Alt’s powerful series, “The Treatment Room,” in which she visualizes the experience of being both client and clinician in pursuit of unlocking the secret spaces in an individual’s mind.

The myriad psychiatric offices Alt pictures are at once benign, banal, predictable…there is the proverbial couch…and homey, with a comforter and tissue box at the ready. Images of the appointment book and desk, the telephone and ever-present clock, along with books and lint rollers, orchids and ornaments, suggest nothing out of the ordinary. But the identities of the humans present are concealed, portrayed only by gestural postures and details that reveal who is patient, who is therapist. The sense of secrecy and intimacy builds as one realizes that these rooms contain and protect longing, anguish, cruelty, disappointment, yearning and hope.

These are powerful places indeed and Jane Fulton Alt’s images suggest the inherent tension, companioned with the feeling of safe haven, that these spaces – and the clinicians – offer.