Lunar inspiration: Rich Tarbell aims high for ‘Moonlight Silhouettes’

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Rich Tarbell’s experience as a musician gave him insight as a photographer. “Because it’s all part of the creative process, you understand what they’re trying to do, and they understand what you’re trying to do,” he said. His exhibition, “Moonlight Silhouettes,” opens Friday at The Garage. Photo courtesy of the artist Rich Tarbell’s experience as a musician gave him insight as a photographer. “Because it’s all part of the creative process, you understand what they’re trying to do, and they understand what you’re trying to do,” he said. His exhibition, “Moonlight Silhouettes,” opens Friday at The Garage. Photo courtesy of the artist

I remember being at my mom’s house when I saw these two silhouettes she had done of my brother and I when we were toddlers,” said Charlottesville-based photographer Rich Tarbell. “Her house is full of quilts and artwork that have rotated over the decades, but those were always there somewhere. They struck me as timeless.”

Tarbell, known for his backstage concert snaps and silhouettes of Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers, opens an exhibition called “Moonlight Silhouettes,” with photography featuring Moonlight Circus aerialists, on April 10 at The Garage.

“I’d been going to CLAW events since day one,” he said. And when performance photographer Billy Hunt switched his focus to videotaping the CLAW documentary, Tarbell became his de facto stand-in and expanded the coverage beyond stage shots. “I got the idea for each event to do a quick portrait of each wrestler, not just an in-action shot of the matches or the crowd,” he said. “I tried to do a backstage in the garage of the Blue Moon Diner, and I was literally trying to carve myself a little 8’x 8′ space, just a tiny area where I could come up with these clever portraits for each wrestler or the ref.”

As he prepared to shoot his fourth set of unique portraits that year, Tarbell was fresh out of ideas. Until he saw the silhouettes.

“The characters themselves make amazing profiles when they’re in costume,” he said. Tarbell produced a full show of them under the pseudonym Olon Pills, hanging them for a month at Blue Moon Diner.

“It really resonated with people more than I thought,” he said. “I thought it was kind of a joke. I was trying to do something that matched the CLAW attitude of fun but thoughtful art, and people really loved them.”

A long-time guitarist, Tarbell began his photography career when he sold an old guitar on eBay and bought a camera. “It started as a thing I did to support my friends, like, ‘Here’s this band I like and you should like too,’ but as I got into it I was given more access to interesting things,” he said.

He described his “romantic rock ‘n’ roll notion” of backstage and tour bus camaraderie.

“I’ve been backstage and set up shots where I knew a scene was coming in terms of the band coming off stage,” he said. “As an audience member you don’t see that when they go backstage they are covered in sweat and exhausted and they take a few minutes to set their brains straight even though they do it 200 days of the year or so. Those moments are when you realize that you’re in their office, and their world is a little different.”

Tarbell said that sense of camaraderie is the common denominator between his creative projects. “It’s a collaborative process with me and my friends,” he said of “Moonlight Silhouettes.”

After the success of his CLAW show, he hatched the idea of large silhouettes and brought the concept to his friends in Moonlight Circus. “They started running with it in terms of performance and hairstyle—you know, the things that make a big difference,” he said.

When shooting the troupe’s Halloween performance live proved difficult due to movement, he pitched the idea of shooting stills in warehouse space at the Ix Art Park. “One of the aerialists is an art teacher, and she embraced the whole concept and the collaboration immediately,” he said. He had the performers’ input on “everything from the poses to the hairstyles to the silks and curtains we used to create the contrast effects.”

After the first session of shots, Tarbell took a few weeks to test printing methods and consult with other artists, and then held a second session.

Ultimately he chose to print several shots on high gloss aluminum and several more with the lenticular printing method, which gives an image an illusion of depth and the ability to change or move as it’s viewed from different angles.

“I just crossed my fingers and hoped,” he said. “I think it went differently than I thought it might, but probably better than I could have imagined.”