There is nothing ordinary about Erika NJ Allen’s photographs of downtown Cincinnati. Taken with a pinhole camera set at an exposure of nine days, the city looks as if it has been underwater for a millennium. We are not likely to take the pictures’ minimal suggestions of color for granted. It is unsettling how they look like they are both underexposed and overexposed, but they emanate mystery and magic. “Silent Serenade” interrupts the look with a huge bright yellow streak that races through the sky, perhaps soaring, perhaps plummeting. However it got onto the print, it adds pent up vitality, exploding into the atmosphere. Is something apocalyptic on its way? Is the city releasing something indescribable into its airspace?
Nor in this show is this sort of newly-released vitality limited to the air. Lisa Britton’s “Spirit 2018” is a picture of water rushing over rocks, presumably from the work she has been doing at Clifton Gorge in Yellow Springs. The time exposure has bleached much of the color out of the stream, emphasizing what color there is—browns and whites everywhere, but a streak or two of yellow and a hint of blue. She has turned the water into something linear, like a jumpily crafted mezzotint, and filled it with an overabundance of life and spontaneous energy. It is lovely and also, I think, a little bit ominous. In this picture, which is about its own animation, it seems fair to look at the overall shapes and see in them a suggestion of a massive and possibly monstrous head partly submerged and partly emerging from the water (and entirely made of water), its white eye (with hints of blue and yellow) taking us in. This is a Midwest filled with pulsing spiritual energy. Its sources are hard to pin down, but they require respect and attention. It is safe to say that you would fly over such a space blind to it all at your peril.
The term “flyover country” dates, apparently, from 1980, but if you live in the Midwest, it feels like the term predates Orville and Wilbur’s first flight. Not that I feel defensive. When I first heard the Midwest denigrated as forgettable (on NBC, in the episode, I believe, where Georgette has driven cross country to see Mary’s best friend Rhoda get married) I did not even live here, but I was on my way. Curated by Local Eyes, a team of five photographers from Cincinnati (Helen Adams, Jymi Bolden, Melvin Grier, Samantha Grier, and Ann Siegel), “Flyover Country” is a fairly extensive and almost always lively anthology of twenty-seven local photographers. The curators were also not defensive. It is substantially, though not exclusively, also collection of local photographs. I would have preferred it if the works in the show had all actually worked at coming to grips with the Midwestern landscape and the lives led there; no matter how fine and interesting they may be, pictures from the Southwest satisfy different appetites and curiosities for me. The show does not argue for a sustained thesis about photography between the Appalachians and the Rockies, but the selection has been inclusive enough to suggest a range of shared concerns.
Regionalism requires a shared landscape, and around these parts, that landscape is going to feature a low horizon line. Michael Caporale’s pictures work to capture the Midwestern sublime. Their skies are intensely blue, the grass is intensely green, and the clouds are astoundingly and hyperbolically well defined; they glow like silver. Their sublimity is then interrupted by features in the landscape, like farm buildings—or monumental statues. One of his works is entitled “Jesus Long Arms,” and though it (like a great many other pictures in the show) is not dated, we can definitively place it before 2014, the year the statue, known locally (and even to Wikipedia) by its nickname, “Touchdown Jesus,” was hit by lightning and burned its Styrofoam and fiberglass body clean down to its metal armatures. The photograph’s attitude was neither adorative nor derisive. I found myself more drawn towards a different Caporale image, “Corrugated with Colors,” a close-up of a wall showing richly rusted cladding over boards that have been painted—perhaps inadvertently—in iridescent pinks and greens. While it is probably the side of some shed, the picture makes it feel like a visionary interpretation of a brightly airy cliff face or an isolated foothill. It embodies a Midwestern love of landscape that is about to emerge from the most unpromising and dark materials.
The landscape portions of the show were consistently adventurous. Robert Flischel’s “Parking Lot, Evendale, Ohio” looks at first glance like an aerial photograph (akin to the actual aerial pictures elsewhere in the show by Jerry Stratton), though it is actually a study of grass and weeds, now dead, that have pushed up through the cracks in the asphalt, taken as a low sun casts long shadows. The picture finds lyricism where it might be least expected. Made up of uneven boxes, it feels like it could be a specially prepared map of the voting precincts in southwest Ohio, though that’s a trick of scale and point of view, of course. The picture illustrates a kind of love of landscape, without insisting that the landscape be itself remarkable in any conventional way. It honors the relentless, lyrical force of nature, often best seen where least expected. The image would in fact be impossible without an overarching presence of decay (you couldn’t have taken this photograph in a truly well-maintained parking lot), but in some ways, decay suits us in flyover country. It is something of a muse.
Decay goes hand in hand with a sense of history and many of the pictures in the show suggest that there are pasts to be encountered wherever we look. This might be one connection between this show and the concept of “Open Archive,” the overall theme of this year’s FotoFocus. To be honest, I have found over the years of FotoFocus, which has become one of the most significant returning art events in Cincinnati, that decoding the theme is my least favorite part. Perhaps the connection between “Flyover Country” and the archival comes from the possibility that some of the artists’ works seem to have been drawn from larger projects, some ongoing, some long since completed. A number of the artists are mid-career or mature, and a look at where they have been—or what they’ve moved on from—is a fascinating way to gauge their work, present and past. Photography is by its very nature a prolific art form, and I would think that giving a group of photographers a chance to look back on works that had been mothballed or just placed on hold could have been perfectly illuminating. I often found myself hungering to see the larger body of work from which these few exemplars were chosen. Does a visit to an open archive suggest order or disorder?
I would say that the show was curated rather casually when it came to adherence to a theme or thesis—and the wall labels were occasionally wrong and often incomplete. I would normally expect to see works at an exhibition dated (particularly in a show where our attention is being called to the archival), and I found that I often had questions about printing methods and technologies, which were virtually never specified. But the curators have compensated for this with a sharp eye for photographers worth our time and attention, and a broad and inclusive interpretation both of the archival and the flyover. The selection suggests graciously that our world is both ordinary and bizarre; its inhabitants half suspect that things are way out of line, but have determined to carry on as if everything was perfectly normal. David Letterman would understand.
Brad Smith has reached back into his archive for “Window Gazing” (it is dated 1985), a black and white picture of two girls leaning out through a window frame. One is squinting out at us, a not-too-clean finger in her mouth, while the other leans against the first, looking off in another direction. We own some, but not all, of their attention. Our presence is being acknowledged in several different ways (as it is in Gregory Rust’s “Cissy,” a portrait of a young Native American woman in a wheelchair looking directly at us, as is the dog of the house, the paintings of the Native American masks, and even the news announcer of the television). Smith’s picture is both unsettling and serene with a formal elegance and an emotional ambiguity that reminded me of Murillo’s mid-seventeenth century painting, “Two Woman at a Window.” As close as the girls are, they are each in a separate world. They are tumbling out of the window frame at us, but also kept at a distance. Are they at home (do they live together or are they friends?) or are they exercising squatters’ rights at some abandoned place whose windows are long gone? The background is so black that the house behind them could be empty (except for the empty chair that barely peeps over the sill), and the paint on the window frame is peeling off ruinously. Either way, it seems clear that we are less at home watching them than they are in watching—or ignoring—us.
“Window Gazing” is one of a group of portraits in the show that is psychologically rich and socio-economically aware. In Todd Joyce’s “Tom, Chickens,” a rather scholarly looking man with beard, rimless glasses, red woolen jacket, and a jaunty wide-brimmed hat cradles a chicken for its closeup. Behind him, other chickens cluster around a heating lamp. Joyce seems drawn to workplace photography, finding something affable and appealing about people pausing from their occupations to pose for him. There is something about the proud display of the chicken that made me think of pictures from a 4-H meeting. How serious a thing is the Midwest’s vestiges of pride in its heritage of agricultural excellence? There is an agricultural sub-theme to a number of works in the show—“You want to know what happens in ‘Flyover Country’? WE MAKE YOUR DAMN FOOD!”—but they do not always suggest the love and care of the 4-H look. Maureen France’s “Chicken Lady, Hamilton County Fair” glares at us through a ridiculous chicken costume (or is it a rooster?), one hand jammed into a pocket. She is not a method actor; it is hard to imagine someone trying less to be the chicken from the inside out. She is stern and her outlook seems bleak. In many ways, the photograph is as well. She stands on patchy grass in front of a painted concrete wall with gangly, stuffed yellow chicken feet partly covering up her perfectly visible sneakers. It is, in part, a reminder how often our visual environment is not compatible with conventional codes of beauty. There is something impressive about the subject’s resistance to having her picture taken; she shares with this viewer, at least, the conviction that neither of us would be happy in this costume. But she does not seem ill at ease. Behind France’s picture might have been, in part, the principle that you find out something crucial about people from their choice of second jobs—their add-on gigs. How far will you go to make ends meet? How shopworn will your dreams be by the time the check arrives? In the current economy, who is to blame for what is happening to a person’s dignity?
The documentary impulse was strongly displayed in a number of works, and might have made a good place to start a discussion of just what sort of document a photograph is and can be. This is, of course, a theme that might have been explored in the previous edition of FotoFocus two years ago, which was titled (enigmatically as always) “The Undocument.” It was hard not to be struck by how seriously Michael Keating, a former photojournalist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, took his documentary calling in the pictures on display at Xavier. Though it was not always self-evident from the photographic image alone, his artist’s statements were filled with meticulous reporting about his subjects. He has a photograph, for example, of a roadside billboard that reads “Hell is Real.” I have sped past such a billboard many times; Keating stopped and got out of his car. The paint is cracked and peeling from age and exposure to the elements, and it is held up uncertainly by wires that are scarcely taut. The image is complemented and transformed by a good deal of information Keating has gathered about how many such billboards there are across the country, how much each costs, and who is paying for them. It is surprising how much there is to know about the things and people Keating photographs, and how much he knows, though one wonders how much of a document each picture is when it is separated from the supporting documentation. For such a photographer, perhaps the archive is a measurement of distance, a deliberate act of isolating the image from all the things we can know about it; the archive is a repository of recoverable information not directly attached to the thing it explains.
The photographer documents some things because they are unusual and simply require our acknowledgement of how remarkable they are, not unlike the ways that the earliest museums gathered together rooms full of whatever did not fit into convenient cultural categories. Matt Steffen’s “Forealism Tribe, Main Street, Cincinnati Ohio” is a picture of a person standing in the middle of the street dressed outlandishly in a costume and a horned helmet-mask made of shards of what might be vinyl records. If a documentary photograph records an ordinary encounter with a totally extraordinary thing, this is it. A different sort of documentary spirit is in Bruce Crippen’s “Front Yard.” A man sits on a plastic chair having his moustache trimmed by a woman while a bare-chested boy, his arms folded, looks on and laughs. Are they family? (She has a ring; he doesn’t.) We don’t know what their relationships are or even who lives in the house, though her electric razor seems to be connected to an inside outlet by a very long cord. Each of the three sports a very different smile. Her hand steadies his head in a way that might be forceful or might be affectionate. To keep from getting uncomfortably itchy from clipped hair, he has a towel, but it is draped around his belly, not his neck. The picture is littered with equivocal clues about economic and social status; a pink plastic fly swatter, for example, hangs from the magazine hooks under the house’s mailbox on the porch wall. It is hardly a decrepit world, nothing like the gothic glassless window from which Brad Smith’s two girls were looking, though the shaver is the only new and shiny thing in the picture. But it is a world in which economic circulation is sluggish, at best.
Though there are some striking photographs of individuals in the show, I was more struck by those that suggested that our characters are best understood in a crowd. In J. Miles Wolf’s “Amish Produce Auction, Bainbridge, Ohio, 2017,” buyers and sellers are crowded around boxes of potatoes and tomatoes, all marked, rather generically, “locally grown.” An Amish woman in a white cap is recording the successful bids. This is business; we are rather far from the world of 4-H and the pleasure and pride in agricultural display. The bidders look on with skeptical eyes, but are not moving away. The men are either wearing ball caps or straw caps; beards and bellies abound. The Amish have accepted some compromises about technology and modernity: people are wearing sneakers and the auctioneer is calling the bids with a headset microphone. His is the only sign of a smile in the crowd, a reminder, perhaps, that the middleman is the best position to be in when buyers and sellers uneasily confront each other. From the picture alone, I could not tell just who the buyers were or what their plans were for the produce they were bargaining for. But I thought the photograph captured the sense that the food we eat passes through many unseen hands before it arrives at Kroger’s or our tables.
Tad Barney’s “Bride Waiting for Groom, Glendale, Ohio, 2011” is taken from a stage behind and above the bride, making her seem diminutive in her chair, more like someone at her high school prom than her wedding. A bow is tied around her chair and possibly around her, presumably part of the preposterous theatrical rituals of the modern wedding. She sits at the center of the photograph but is not the center of attention; as the title tells us, all eyes are on the space from which the groom will make his entrance, leaving her, to an uncharitable eye, tied up and quite alone. (What sort of wedding has time for yet another ceremony, the arrival of the groom?) Her girlfriends are sitting together on one side, bursting with vitality while waiting for him to come on in. (This must be some groom.) Cameras abound. The wedding photographer kneels in front of the bride, swapping out cameras or lenses. The moment is being multiply archived even as it is occurring. Everyone is smiling except the children, who are generally bored and who have already dropped their napkins on the floor. Hey, it’s a wedding. The further away from the bride you are, the more likely you are to be talking to your tablemates, and the higher you are holding your camera. Until the groom arrives, the image we are left with is of the bride, surrounded on all sides by empty space, a young woman who is the reason the group has been assembled and currently completely irrelevant to it.
Guennadi Maslov’s panoramic photo of “Centralia, Pennsylvania” captures a delirious, psychedelic, post-apocalyptic Disneyland of graffiti. Who knew that spray paint came in so many colors? Everywhere you look along this stretch of decommissioned highway, even on the guardrails, is a dense layering of messaging. “Down with Capitalism.” “RIP Ned Dieh.” “Libertarians Rock.” “#DeerMeat.” Some memorialize people’s names, and some are as enigmatic as ancient petroglyphs. It is amazingly lively and deeply melancholy, a thing you can’t have missed and a thing you’re not sure you wished you’d ever seen.
But this is not just any abandoned space. As the photographer explains, Centralia used to be a coal mining town. In 1962, a fire began in the coal seams underground that has not been extinguished to this day. Thirty years later, all the remaining buildings left in Centralia were claimed by the state by eminent domain. Maslov suggested that if I wanted to find out more, I should consult the largest open archive we have, the web, where even the most casual Google search tells the story. Centralia was founded by Revolutionary War veteran Robert Morris, who lost it when he went bankrupt. In the mid-19th century, it was a center of activity for the Molly Maguires, who sought to create a miners’ union at any cost, and were eventually dispatched by hanging. The Lehigh Valley Coal Company owned all the mines in town until they had to close them in the Great Depression. It once had almost 3000 inhabitants. It now has seven. Its zip code is 00000. Centralia tells the story of life cycles of aspiration and failure. But it’s left behind an archive of its own in the hundreds and hundreds of painted inscriptions that continue the Centralia story after everything else in the town had completely gone under. It is another unforgettable by-product of decay. In Maslov’s photograph, the markers have left behind a very lonely triumph, but a triumph of a sort nonetheless. It is one way to record the truly unkillable spirit of the Midwest.