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Wellin exhibit explores social concerns

By Lucas Phillips '16

February 6, 2014

In Context: The Portrait in Contemporary Photographic Practice, curated by Assistant Professor of Art Robert Knight, explores the way 13 contemporary photographers document and examine social issues.  The show is a large one—with over 2,000 photos in one series alone—and takes up nearly three-quarters of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Musuem’s exhibit space.  The show is as diverse as it is large, testing the balance of what the introduction calls “aesthetic and political goals to frame important social issues in a contemporary manner.”

A point of comparison between almost all the works on display is the way they use individuals or groups to draw attention to a subject.  In Laura El-Tantawy’s Faces of a Revolution, the individual is presented as the only feature.  The images are dark close-ups of the face of a single subject, each with an expression of deep anguish.  Neither the photos nor the subjects have names and there is no visible background to contextualize the portraits.  In short, El-Tantaway comments on the Egyptian Revolution, part of the so-called Arab Spring, solely in terms of individual but non-contextualized grief. 

Sharon Lockhart’s photos of lunchboxes represent individuals in terms of their possessions, yet she provides something that El-Tantawy doesn’t: names.  In “Gary Gilpatrick, Insulator,” a man is characterized by the contents of his box: a newspaper, a cigarette box, pencils, a magnifying glass and medicine.  Simpler still, her photos “Frank Malone, Welder” and “Gary McDorr, Stage Builder” draw vivid portraits with lunchboxes alone.  One beaten Little Playmate cooler bears only one sticker, “Iron Workers Local 808,” the other, dozens of small fruit stickers.

Magali Corouge’s What Were You Doing combines both symbolic representations, individuals and descriptions.  Each portrait in Corouge’s installation is accompanied by a framed transcript of an interview with the subject.  It is worth noting that the interview is the same size as the photo.  Thus, Corouge very deliberately filters the Libyan revolution through the views of her subjects.  Ahmed Assabri appears in his taxi and his comments on the current and future state of Libya conclude with his views on standardized taxi meters.  Next to his portrait is Salah Zatar, a journalist and blogger with his tv station microphone, sitting on the table next to him.  Corouge perhaps loses Lockhart’s subtlety and El-Tantawy’s raw emotion, but gains a more direct link between the subject and the viewer.  Having the interviews printed in equal size to the photos suggests that for Corouge, the interpretation of the issues is better left to individuals than the photographer.  In this sense, she seems more strictly to document, rather than express, her own views.

Persons Unknown photographer Tom Hunter brings a deep familiarity to his subjects.  The accompanying text notes, “Hunter has been part of various marginal communities…and the time spent living in these underground and countercultural communities has granted [him] a unique view into the lives of those on the fringes of society, depicting them with a sense of dignity, individuality, and beauty.”  The photos are the largest in the show and the most richly colorful.  “The Way Home” is modelled on a painting by John Everett Millais, “Ophelia.”  Hunter is also inspired by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.  Hunter channels Vermeer’s use of lighting in “Eve of the Party,”  in which beams of light pierce through the ceiling of a dilapidated building, giving a young woman a bright white double profile.  Rubble and dirt, a bowl and a bottle of Pepsi Max lie scattered on the ground.  “Eve of a Party” feels like a depiction of isolation and poverty but also, beauty.  Similarly, in “Vale of Rest,” two women burn scraps of wood against a red-orange sunset.  Hunter’s portraits are strikingly composed without eliciting pity or sugar-coating his message.

Mishka Henner’s distance from the subject is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  He hasn’t even met the subjects of his photos.  In fact, his series of photos of prostitutes are photographs from Google streetview that he made by looking up locations known to be places where prostitutes wait for clients.

Other artists in the exhibit focus on groups as a means of exploring social issues.  In Taryn Simon’s portraits of a family, the individuals are so important to the group that blank spaces remain where the subjects (or, in one case, the subject’s mother) requested the photo not appear.  Chris de Bode, in contrast, frames the migration of people during the Libyan Revolution (Exodus from Libya) in terms of a huge quantity of people walking along the road with their possessions.   In one panel, a man walks along the edge of the road, a small bundle on his head and an endless expanse of scrubland behind him, empty except for a telephone wire.  He is the only lone subject in dozens of panels.  De Bode’s instillation is effective in communicating the large number of people who were displaced in the revolution.

De Bode’s work is dwarfed, however, by the sheer scale of the exhibitions of work by Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse and Jim Goldberg. The pair displays over 2,000 photos in the exhibit in three 13-foot tall light boxes.  The imposing number of photos mimics the place where they were taken.  The Ponte City apartment building in Johannesburg is one of the tallest buildings in Africa.  Ponte City’s three panels are “Windows,” “Doors” and “Televisions.”  The installation is described in the accompanying text as “simultaneously creating a portrait of the individual residents, the building itself and post-apartheid South African culture as a whole.”  From a visual standpoint, the display is appealing.  “Doors” is framed by black doors along the sides and grouped colors—two bands of blue, one of red.  “Televisions,” photos of residents’ television screens, is a vast array of bright colors.  Even the mostly grey “Windows” has splashes of rich color from the occasional curtain, and people create poetic silhouettes against the Johannesburg skyline.  The visual appeal of the display is matched by the artists’ depiction of urban decay mirrored in the building’s decline.

Goldman’s photos are tacked up in a dense grid along a long wall.  The large number of photos disguises the fact that there are repeats.  This is much in keeping, however, with the studio-like display of the prints (the exhibit is appropriately called Proofs).  Goldberg draws on the photos as if preparing to crop them, and makes notes about the subjects and whether or not to use the photos.  On a picture of a man with a deep scar on his back, the photographer notes simply, “tortured.”  The informality of it is expanded by a diverse subject matter.  Pictures of scarred backs sit next to photos of girls on a beach.  As in Subotzky & Waterhouse’s photos, Goldman accomplishes something with scale.  He accomplishes a range of human experience, some of it very, very dark.

If the exhibit suffers from anything, it might be its extraordinary number of photos.  While some photographers only have a few prints, installations like Ponte City and Proofs are very absorbing and quite large.  Still, the exhibit does ultimately succeed in showing the extraordinary diversity in the way contemporary photographers are approaching social and political concerns in their work.  And, it’s hard to complain that there’s too much to see when the show is as exceptionally good as it is.

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