Albuquerque photographer Margot A. Geist is turning matchboxes into works of art in her new exhibit, Discovering Fire: A Matchbox Series. On display at the Jonathan Abrams MD Art Gallery at UNM Hospital through Nov. 1, the 27 unusual images of this collection are more than simple photos of forgotten fire-starters. In each framed photograph, the matchbox is opened to reveal an unsuspected vista inside its tiny walls.
“The idea is that you open this box and inside is a world that is hidden, layered,” Geist explains. “As a kid, I liked to open matchboxes and put things in there that I found. There’s a certain amount of magic, transformation, illumination there. This is meant to show everyday objects with something not so everyday happening [in them].”
Consider the piece titled “Birdie Brand.” The cheerful yellow cover features a drawing of a bird sitting on a branch. Inside the open box is a photo of an empty birdcage sitting in a garden oasis. Or so it appears. Look closely and you see that the cage and its surrounding flowers are almost see-through, ethereal. Geist used digital processes to layer several images inside the matchbox for an “otherworldly” effect. Her goal: for the viewer to feel as if they are looking through a veil of time and space.
Several of Geist’s images use that photomontage technique, and all but one incorporate another structural element that adds thought-provoking whimsy—the matches themselves. “Birdie Brand” shows matches configured as a tree branch extending from the front of the box. In another piece, “Hen House,” matches form slats under the box as if beneath a hen house. They turn the matchbox into a pier in “Brown’s Wharf.”
Geist isn’t sure what inspired her to turn matchboxes into art, but she has a passion for the concepts of fire and alchemy.
“Fire is probably the first alchemical element people ever experienced. You have a spark and fire, the basis of alchemy. Matchboxes contain the instruments of that,” she says.
Through her studio, Geistlight Photography, Geist specializes in commercial photography and fine art. This exhibit enabled her to combine the two. The result is a photographic journey.
The matchboxes, some vintage, are from all over the world. They come from restaurants and hotels in Alabama, Seattle, Nashville and Colorado Springs. There’s one from Kyoto, Japan and one from Peru. Viewing each piece is like traveling the world via a little piece of folk art.
Geist spent a year amassing this fiery, eclectic collection. Some matchboxes, like the one in “The Fish Market,” she’d owned for years. Others were donated by friends and family who wanted to help her. Some she found after searching online.
“Collecting these was part of the life of the exhibit. Each matchbox has a life of its own, a history. Who owned it? Whose hands has it been in?” Geist muses. “It’s a story.”
The collection is also a journey through Geist’s career. The photos she digitally incorporates inside each matchbox were taken over many years. She wasn’t sure how, or if, she would use them until the spark of inspiration struck.
“I’d study the matchbox and think about what photo would be best and realize what would work,” she recalls. “A specific picture really has to work well with each image. It was very exciting.”
And by choosing the perfect photo, each matchbox’s inner world, its story, is revealed. The fun of this exhibit comes in the viewer’s freedom to create that story for themselves. It’s the spark of imagination, the illumination of discovery. Once it ignites, you’ll never again look at matchboxes, and perhaps other “everyday” objects, the same way.