There’s something magical about becoming a parent and entering a mysterious new territory full of unforeseeable challenges and unparalleled joys. Many photographers, meanwhile — constantly peering through the lens in search of answers — maintain a fraught relationship with the very idea of mystery, alternately acting as the spinner of tall tales or the destroyer of fantasy.
Photographer Scott Alario became a father in 2008 when his wife, the sculptor, seamstress and poet Marguerite Keyes gave birth to their daughter, Elska, who quickly became the centerpiece of his work. Drawing from his favorite fables and a longing to create a utopia for Elska to inhabit, he began staging photos blending together the tradition of family photographs with a whimsical fairy-tale world he was encountering through the eyes of his first child.
Now almost six years old, Elska has become a pivotal contributor to her father’s creative process, and the work, Alario tells TIME, reflects that evolution.
“There’s a photo of Elska following Marguerite down a path in the woods, and I just sort of plopped her down there like she was this prop or this doll while I set up my camera,” Alario says. “But now, as she’s started moving more, it’s physically harder to capture her on slow film. Or sometimes she’ll just say, ‘No,’ and that’s really changing things.”
As an undergraduate student at Massachusetts College of Art from 2002-2006, Alario learned from Nicholas Nixon, Abelardo Morell and Barbara Bostworth; in fact, he still uses a 4×5 camera, to which he was introduced at MassArt, for the majority of his work. The conflict between capturing an often uncontrollable subject through a process he can control to the finest detail, is part of a larger duality in his work, one that blurs boundaries between subject and author, darkness and humor, documentary and fantasy.
“I’m always thinking in binaries, like good and evil playing itself out, and how kids are always on the verge of being these crazy, wild things and tame, structured things,” Alario explains. “There’s always this push and pull between us. In some ways it’s a documentary of my family, but in other ways the family becomes these surrogate characters for a story that’s perhaps more universal.”
Alario says that lately, he’s turned to a more documentary approach, and has had to loosen up and let Elska, increasingly aware of the camera’s presence and growing into her role as a performer, take charge.
“If I were smarter, I’d probably trust her even more,” he says. “She functions on instinct and passion, and it’s so clear. She’s a ham when she’s performing. She knows how badly I want to get a shot sometimes, so she plays with me. Eventually I can see having to bribe her to get photographs of her. There’s going to have to be an exchange. I’m going to have to make it worth her while.”
Scott Alario is a photographer, father of two and visiting professor at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. His first solo show in New York is on display at the Kristen Lorello gallery through July 18.