Spot On: Sit, Image, sit

By Patrick Collier

Much is made in photography circles of the sheer volume of photography: so many people both have a camera (either an actual lens attached to a camera body or a function included in a phone, pad or pod) and ubiquitous social media outlets for all those images. Along with the “democratization” of photography comes a concern that the medium has become diluted as an art form.

Even so, we are a culture accustomed to taking in an extraordinary number of images each day thanks to the training provided by newspapers, magazines and television.  And although the Web may have  supplanted those more traditional media and it may seem that we are edging toward overload at times, we still manage the deluge with the built-in survival mechanism of our thirteen-second attention span.

I reference the thirteen-second time period, for that was what I was taught back when I wrote copy for a direct-marketing firm. The rule of thumb was that if you could not secure the customer’s attention in 13 seconds, no sale would follow. Mind you, this was back when there was only dial-up access, so I suspect the attention span needed for success has been significantly reduced. I know that I’m good for about a three-second pause when I’m power browsing, and I don’t suppose I’m any different than most folks. So conditioned, my visits to any one gallery can be very short in duration.

Generally, I cruise along, employing a quasi-subjective filter loose enough for the unexpected to stick yet also designed to let the fluff float past. When I do linger, it’s for good reason: I have connected with a work. Such was the case a few times this last couple of weeks.

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For the last three months Portland Art Museum has had 50 of its 500 recent (2009 – 2011) photo acquisitions on display. The exhibit has been taken down as of this writing, but I mention it both  to mark the collection’s growth and because a visit to the museum was long overdue.

The wall placard outlining how these new works made their way to the museum describes what is already very apparent to any regular Portland gallery-goer: The museum is tight with Blue Sky Gallery and its associated  photographers. (Conscious of the fact that I wrote about a Blue Sky exhibition in the last “Spot On,”  I want to assure readers that I am not a mouthpiece for the gallery. Boosterism or evangelism of any kind is not part of my makeup. I’ve seen some great shows at Blue Sky and I seen a few yawners. Yet, some of the more memorable exhibits were represented by a photo or two  at PAM.) Consequently, I did a lot of stopping and looking. Remembering the Blue Sky exhibits of some the work, I made note to look online when I went home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Amy Stein, “High Grass,” Portland Art Museum

The museum had two of Amy Stein’s photos, “Backyard” and “High Grass” from her series, “Domesticated.” This body of work has been seen in quite a few venues the past four years, and it is good to see that PAM has these prints. The rural woman in “High Grass” has been distracted away from the laundry line in her backyard; a dog watches her at the edge of the high grass. In many ways this is a most unremarkable scene, yet, we sense a danger exists. The woman is barefoot, susceptible. Is the animal someone’s pet or feral?  Are the two in a standoff and will the woman have to defend herself with the plastic laundry basket? More to the point, why does the mind wander this way?  Note that the photo is staged so that the high grass does not hide the animal from the woman, but partially obscures it from us.

“High Grass” is both familiar and strange. We make a connection with the scene as we would play with a pet in our backyards. Yet, significant questions remain, not the least of which is whether or not “High Grass,” and for that matter “Backyard” as well, are staged. Looking back at the series as a whole, some photos seem that way while others do not. The more surreal the event captured, the more fabricated it feels.

To a city dweller, either of the above photos may seem foreign, except, of course that we have seen similar images in print or on the tube. To that effect, our sensibilities have been dulled. Too many things seem familiar and mundane. The challenge for artists engaged in some form of realism then becomes to present the everyday in a manner that departs from convention.

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I was born in this town
live here my whole life
probably come to die in this town
live here my whole life
never anything to do in this town
live here my whole life
never anything to do in this town
probably learn to die in this town
live here my whole life
nothing to do
sit around at home
nothing to do
stare at the walls
stare at each other
wait til we die
stare at each other
wait til we die
probably come to die in this town
live here my whole life
there’s kerosene around
something to do
there’s kerosene around
she’s something to do
there’s kerosene around
find something to do
there’s kerosene around
she’s something to do
there’s kerosene
set me on fire…Kerosene!

I was reminded of these lyrics from Big Black’s song, “Kerosene,” when I came upon Daniel Farnum’s series of photos, “Growing Up,” at Newspace Center for Photography. (Go see it before it closes July 1.) Never mind that the song is an anthem for angry young kids in small towns across the country. After all, the accelerant may be a metaphor for the passion of love. The sentiment is that something needs to shake us from the boredom of sameness; the death sentence of the mundane is therefore enlivened with violence.

Daniel Farnum, “Cross Walk View,” Newspace Gallery

Farnum’s photos are of suburban sprawl on the edge of open range. This in itself can provide juxtapositions within a composition: a snake that has been run over in the middle of the street, rows of houses in the background; or a quarter pipe/ramp constructed in what seems to be the middle of nowhere with a single worn track leading to it from a considerable distance. In themselves, these photos are not that much removed from the narrative we see in similar bodies of work from any number of photographers. However, they do function as contrasts to other photos in which Farnum pushes a more artistic approach to the image.

What one first notices in the photograph “13” is the highlighted part of a tree trunk where a sizable limb has been removed. A significant amount of this photo is in shadow, and the light suggests an errant apparition or the remnants of a memory of this place on a particular day. Perhaps something unlucky. It is only when we eventually move beyond this lit area to scan the rest of the photo that we see the number 13 barely visible on the fence behind the tree. We have been manipulated to feel the displacement.

There are other photos in the exhibit, such as “Cross Walk View” that attempt to create similar moods. The series as a whole, then, achieves varying levels of depth, for, as one might expect, memories and insights provided from lessons learned are not all profound. However, to Farnum’s credit, all resist the feel of a snapshot or family photo.

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Thomas Zummer, Elektro Smoking Robot,
Feldman Gallery, PNCA

If honest about my reductive tendencies, I find a vast amount of what purports to be fine art photography somewhat tedious. Just because it is successful within certain parameters of what constitutes an acceptable image, the confinement of a frame creates a validation that lends itself to something akin to egotism, or maybe nostalgia, frozen in place (of the self)  and time. This may be why  I am less bothered looking at someone’s family photo album (if I really care about the person) than a photography exhibit. For the former, that a particular photo is supposed to be something more than an image of a person, place or event in that person’s life, does not enter into the equation.

Not that pretense is necessarily a bad thing, and I’m aware of the the reactionary brashness of these comments (which aren’t new ones: Books have been written…). But they work as a  transition to Thomas Zummer’s “partial retrospective of works I should have done” at PNCA’s Philip Feldman Gallery.

Zummer operates at a theoretical level that can overwhelm the viewer, yet his photo-based drawings are disarmingly simple in resolve. The card accompanying the exhibition says it well (which I hope does not prevent art writers more astute than I from writing at greater length about the work): “Rather, it’s a show about the apprehension, arrestment, fixation of an image, of what happens when we try to capture an image. It is about the relationship between representation (re-presentation) and reference, that to which the photo refers or purports to capture. It is about the complex performance process in which we engage to capture images and the passage of those images through various states via various media which point to the invisible apparatus for the production of that image.”

In other words, the photograph turns in on itself as the idea of a photograph and therefore makes its content somewhat secondary, like a document through the camera obscura (still a source for inspiration and investigation), which frees it for displacement into other media, or simply as the idea of a photograph.

As the viewer for photographs becomes more sophisticated or discriminating, or even, with a camera always at-the-ready, more skilled as a photographer, the constant, in a very general sense, is the need to stay the ephemeral nature of proximity and immediacy. Whether the subject matter is quotidian or quixotic, it is this desire to fix a meaning that comes to the fore as the (e)motivation to connect with or make photographs.

No wonder there are so many.

NOTES

Big Black’s “Kerosene”

 

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