I mean, sure. I’ll go to a photography exhibit with my friend, who happens to also have been my wedding photographer. In a time when everyone’s a smartphone-photographer and Instagram is everyone’s personal gallery, it’ll be refreshing to see a fresh take. Tableaux devoid of people I know. Carefully considered execution of previously unrecognized stories. You know—what’s commonly called “art.”
At the Houston Center for Photography, we found some of those stories, some of that drama, some of that consideration. But some of the artists included left our spirits a little flat.
Otherworldly at its best, the photographs in “This Side of Paradise” fluctuate in their mission and meaning. I took Jessie to get her take, and, perhaps, validations of my own opinions. (For fun, try to guess which pictures she took in this article and which ones are mine.) Our opinions didn’t diverge much, but she did notice things I didn’t, as can be expected from a full-time photographer. Her first impression: “This side is lighted much better than the other.” I only realized later, looking at her photos of the photos, that some of the lights weren’t even on.
Jessie’s second impression, after glimpsing a number of eerie prints: “Is there a Halloween theme?”
It should be noted that: one, there was not a Halloween theme, and two, we only saw half of the show, although we didn’t realize that until it was too late to travel across Houston in rush hour to the other location. FotoFest has presented a photography exhibit of Texas artists (broadly named “Talent in Texas”) since 2004. In 2007, Houston Center for Photography joined the endeavor, and the organizations have co-hosted the annual exhibition ever since. This year’s exhibition, “This Side of Paradise,” is curated by Catherine Anspon, with the work is split between the two organizations’ locations in Houston’s museum district. We went to the Houston Center for Photography.
The photos in the “right light” proved to be our respective favorites. Jessie favored Michele Grinstead Griffiths’ series of oval portraits, suggestive of renaissance paintings in their large size, thick gold frames and subjects’ demeanor. The contemporary clothing and hairstyles of the subjects in contrast to ornate themes made their stares all the more powerful. Plus, it was well-lit.
A portraitist herself, Jessie loved “Katie, 15” by Lané Pittard, the face of the exhibit on most publicity pieces. Pittard’s display method didn’t quite do her work justice; the photos were in a shallow wooden frame behind glass, not mounted but slouched against the back of the frame, as if they were trying to slip out of the front. Perhaps she wanted “warped” to apply not only to the often quirky subjects, but the quality of the print as well. That may not be applicable to “Katie,” but certainly describes some of her other subjects. The work as a whole reads as a high-art family album; maybe those vintage corner-mounts from old photo albums would be more appropriate for these square prints. Nevertheless, the artistry of these prints did not suffer too much, even without proper lighting.
Nancy O’Connor’s “Milam” pieces received a different treatment than the other photos, to great success. A darkened room housed her portrait of Milam, an elderly man, printed onto silk bound only at the top edge. As if the subtly floating portrait wasn’t ethereal enough, a recording of the man’s voice also played in the room, with a minimalistic accompanying video that gave the impression of wandering around the Texas bayou. Her other photos, in the usual gallery light, mix bright, popping color blocks with antique photos. Their titles reveal her familial connection to the subjects. The modern colors and shapes contrast the photos’ antiquity just enough to bring them into the present as, perhaps, a way for O’Connor to connect with family members she may never have known.
Another deeply, immediately personal series, “Getting Lost” by Delaney Allen, included scrawled text that recounted the artist’s grandfather’s love of driving, and how injuries from falling out of a car led to his death. Below it, an evolution of his grandfather’s portrait gradually melding into his own gives the story an extra—personal—barb. The heavenly skies created with water, milk and food coloring in “Recreating The Heavens In the Swimming Pool” can be related to his grandfather’s passing. Also notable is “Exploring Northern California,” which strategically places a woman’s red lips on a brush pile that wouldn’t have depicted anything remotely human without that one appendage. “Getting Lost” sees the self in nature, other people, and the sky’s luminous void, whether real (“McKenzie Pass, Oregon”) or imagined in a swimming pool.
But, back to the spooky quality that made Jessie question the exhibition’s theme. Although the aforementioned artists didn’t necessarily contribute to that “theme,” their interpreted space (ornate qualities, antique portraits of the now-deceased, suggested ponderance of the afterlife) could allow them entry into such a show. Directly across from the grand oval portraits was a grid of nine black and white prints by Steve Goff. Among werewolves and scary clowns, two elderly people are pictured near the bottom, and appear to be ill or afflicted in some way. A woman’s bald head implies cancer, for example. This suggests that noir “horror show” tropes are fun to imagine, but the true horror lies in illness and loss we can never escape in reality. A misplaced photo of a young bearded man near the top thwarts this theory, and the titles reveal that the bearded man and elderly subjects are from the series “Ceremony People,” while the others are from “Theatrical Series.” While each photo is well-composed in its drama and/or camp factor, I wished my initial assessment had been correct. After all, you are taking a photo—is it too much to ask to contribute some meaning to a series in its development and display?
Julie Ledet’s four-part series, with the laughable horror-film title “Her Skin So Thin,” blurred a gauzy sort of Victorian muslin or dollar-store Halloween spider web wrapped around a young woman, suggesting simultaneous movement (perhaps to escape?) and decay. Ledet’s more fascinating work, the only truly interactive part of the show, featured postcard-sized etched prints. On the other side, it appeared the viewer was supposed to write some kind of personal declaration or bargain. The title, “Repetition and Ritual of Reconciliation & Relics,” gives the anonymous bargains and declarations a holy importance: “I feel trapped, but I will claw my way to sunlight and happiness.” “I wish she were here.” “If I stop worrying, he’ll stay.” The station for writing had been dismantled, so Jessie and I ended up not revealing anything to the wall. But we did look for the opportunity to add our own disruption.
Jack McGilvray’s “The Lake House” sought to infer interaction, to take the viewer to a familiar but remote vacation spot. “This looks like student work,” Jessie said, regarding the display. “I know because I used to take these types of photos as a student. Everyone does.” Everyday objects served as subjects in these photos, and they were printed on incorrectly sized paper, fastened directly to the wall. McGilvray also created two low, loosely woven lawn chairs (not for sitting) facing the spread, which at least brought one vaguely new dimension to otherwise ordinary work.
I’m not sure which “Side of Paradise” we ended up on: the well-lit, or the self-consciously dark and underdeveloped. Maybe we should have mustered the stamina to rush over to the part at FotoFest, but the tepid half of this portion didn’t inspire much movement. Portraits carried the weight here, and while I’m not sure “transformative” can be applied to the whole exhibit, we were nevertheless transported.
—Joelle Jameson is a writer living in Houston, Texas.