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Photography

Semivan's ghost dance

Her house may be haunted, her photos are definitely haunting

Camera obscura: Lauren Semivan takes haunting photos in her century-old abode.
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Published 10/8/2008

A few months ago, photographer Lauren Semivan moved into a huge late 19th century house in Oakland County. Assigned as caretaker of this staggering showcase of forgotten art and antiques, she spent her first day cleaning the dust from Victorian-era sofas, claw-foot tables, ornate candlesticks and large framed portraits that stare out from the plaster walls. She swept away dead insects and carried a dead bird she found lying on its back in the hall out to the yard.

That day she turned off the radio and heard a few notes coming from the harpsichord in the front room. Nobody else was home.

"I was unpacking boxes in the kitchen listening to music," she says. "And when I turned it off, I heard five or six notes on the harpsichord. I thought, 'I can't run out of the house right now. I have to deal with this stuff. I don't know if ghosts are real, but if they are, we have to get along.'"

Although the house is filled with beautiful things, it feels empty and abandoned, maybe even haunted. Most of the furniture shows the authentic dilapidation of its age and has never been cleaned — let alone restored. There are chairs scattered everywhere, but none invite a visitor to sit. Instead, there's just a compulsion to stand in the center of it all and take in every strange antique object, to breathe in the musty scent of the past. There are a few holes in the ceilings, big enough for a bird to fall through. In the bathroom storage closet, a stuffed lion is mounted in the wall. Its glass eyes stare out as if alive.

Throughout the house, things are set in the most unlikely places. For instance, a mid-20th century ceramic lamp sits under a large ivory-colored shade on the kitchen counter. It's an awkward behemoth that gives off just enough light to make a cup of tea.

"When I moved in here I knew it was going to drive my imagination," Semivan says. "Or cause me to be totally paranoid. I'd be really inspired or really uncomfortable."

So far, so good. She's adjusting to the house and all that goes along with it, including lore about the ghost of a woman who might be responsible for some of the strange sounds. The current owner told Semivan he once heard skirts rustling on the stairs. The woman in question was a sculptor living in the house after her scandalous divorce in the early 1900s.

"The same family over generations lived in the house," Semivan says. One relative "said her grandmother might be hanging around here. She went to the Sorbonne to study sculpture and painting."

Perhaps the woman's ghost is still a little rambunctious — prone to hit a few keys on the harpsichord on a late summer afternoon. Wooden stands for her sculptures remain stored in the attic with books, glass bottles and more relics. Oddly, it's the best-lit room in the house.

Semivan isn't bothered by the time-warped solitude of her temporary home or its possible ghosts. These things inspire her, and in some ways, mirror the aesthetic of her photographs, which are shot with a Kodak view camera made in 1903. Her pictures feature floating objects, sheer pieces of fabric and, sometimes, Semivan herself appears obscured in some way. In one picture, she's hiding behind a vintage painting of a two rabbits. In another, only her arm and hand are seen as her palm rests on the back of an antique chair.

"They're all equally autobiographical," she says of her photographs. "The ones I'm in and the ones I'm not in."

At 27, Semivan is devoted to being a photographer and, perhaps in the future, an art teacher. Her work is influenced by 20th-century photographers, Francesca Woodman, Meret Oppenheim and Claude Cahun. She also takes inspiration from the painter Dorothea Tanning and the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, not only for their art, but also their writing and ideas. In 2002, she decided to change her career path from music to visual art. A former student at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin, she once aimed at a career as a violinist. She still plays the violin with various groups, including the local pop ensemble Pas/Cal, which just released a full-length CD I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura on Le Grand Magistery in July. But she changed her major at Lawrence from music to studio art then went on to study photography at the Cranbrook Art Academy where she finished her master's in 2006. She then became a lecturer at Missouri State University. The transition was all about realizing what she really wanted and making it happen, negotiating the dichotomy of art and life.

"I learned by watching," she says. "But I learned more about how to incorporate art into life. My dad was a role model in that way."

Semivan's dad is a well-known artist and Madonna University art department chair and associate professor, Doug Semivan. He too attended Cranbrook and received his MFA in 1973. Around that time, he was the director of the Detroit Artists Market. He's been working from his Royal Oak studio for about 30 years. He and his wife, Julie, a schoolteacher, raised their daughter to be an independent thinker, to take risks.

"Lauren's mother and I are very proud of her accomplishments," he says. "Her choice to become a working artist was a natural outcome of her education. She really had no choice. The advice I gave her was simple. Decide what you want to do, and then do it."

And that's what Lauren Semivan did. She works part time at the Cranbrook Art Museum and gives the rest of her time to photography. The black-and-white prints she'll be showing at her first solo show, Weights & Measures, are 40-inch-by-60-inch interior scenes all shot against a wall with her antique Kodak View camera, which only allows her to make photos of certain dimensions, but creates images that have both excellent detail and softness. They have a flat ethereal feeling even where there's movement. A slightly blurred candelabra floats upward like a balloon tethered by white string. The artist's hand holds the string between her palm and a wooden chair. A twisted sheet of black tulle hangs over the scene like a sky full of storm clouds. The burned-out ends of the candles are extinguished.

The photos were shot when she was teaching at Missouri State. She used a large piece of drywall, which she painted for each one, to create the shadowy enclosed spaces and ornate dead ends that characterize her work to date.

Semivan's already begun taking new photos in the big old house. Her antique Eastman Kodak is mounted on a wooden tripod restored for her by a few of her teachers at Cranbrook. It faces a mantel and that holds a curvy white opaque glass lamp. When viewed through the camera it almost looks like a woman's ghost.

Weights & Measures: New Photographs by Lauren Semivan opens Saturday, Oct. 4, with a reception 5-8 p.m. at David Klein Gallery, 163 Townsend, Birmingham; 248-433-3700; dkgallery.com. Exhibit runs through Nov. 8.

Norene Cashen is a freelance arts writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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