STILLS captivates with sophisticated themes and representative young artists
Michael Lowe Gallery. 905 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH 45202
Stills is one of six “featured” exhibitions created for the October 2012 FotoFocus Biennial. it was curated by San Francisco publisher and collector Nion McEvoy and FotoFocus artistic director Kevin Moore. The pair brought together works by American and European photographers who use analogue or digital still photography. The artists here explore varying concepts, mostly within the realm of “street photography.” Their art, which is mostly is made (or found) outside the studio, is usually based upon spontaneous rather than posed scenes from everyday life.
The exhibition, with its focus exclusively on stills, adheres to the festival theme of “photography in dialog” by serving as a counterpoint to the film screenings (now closed) of moving images at the Lightborne building. The curators intended that the two shows would create a dialog, which viewers could learn from and expand upon.
One of the major goals, according to FotoFocus director Mary Ellen Goeke, was that the festival be educational–that the audience be exposed to new artists, diverse techniques, and different perspectives. A second goal for festival organizers was to promote a dialog among the viewers, a community-wide buzz in Cincinnati.
Stills expertly satisfies those goals, and a visit is highly recommended. The quality is superb, the ensemble is visually stunning, and the artists are accomplished and provocative. Many of them have shown in prestigious international museums, including MOMA, the Metropolitan, and the Tate.
Stills differs from other FotoFocus exhibitions, such as the show of classic French still photography at the Taft Museum of Art in that this exhibition is made up of works by twenty-first century, living artists. The content is distinctive: Many of the works contain literary allusions and narratives. Another communality is that most pictures portray anonymous people experiencing mundane moments in urban environments, such as Brooklyn, Manhattan, and exotic Istanbul.
The exhibition opens with a stunning work by Barbara Probst, who presents shifting perspectives of a single scene. The German-born New York artist employs as many as twelve cameras that she can activate simultaneously. Then, she digitalizes and prints two or more together in a neo-Baroque picture panel. The results are somewhat akin to those achieved by a panoramic photograph, where we view an expanded, multifaceted image, which extends beyond the linear perspective view of the human eye.
The exhibition “began with an idea,” say the curators, “and our first selection was Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers. Davey, a Montreal native who now lives and works in New York City, is a writer, photographer, and video artist, and her work often crosses those disciplines. It does so in Subway Writers, where she explored the theme of anonymous individuals reading and writing in public transit, a private act in a public space in filmed moving images as well as stills. The complementary versions were both shown in FotoFocus; the stills at Lowe Gallery; the video was screened at Lightborne.
In Subway Writers, Davey’s subjects are young adults, ordinary people absorbed in reading or writing, while commuting on a New York City train. They are dressed for cold weather walks in coats and caps. We suspect they are students attending an urban commuter college. (Posters and the yellow-orange upholstery interior provide clues to the MTA line.)
Even before learning that Subway Writers was the curatorial point of departure for the exhibition, it was my favorite work at Stills because of its wit, complexity, and uncommon beauty. It is a large and important piece with 25 small (12×18 inch) c-prints arranged in one composition like the panels of a Renaissance altarpiece. The narrative can be read in much the same way, like following scenes from the life of a saint. There is little action within the panels, but there is a linear progression as the drama unfolds, so the viewer has a sense of passing through time and space.
Building on the time and travel theme, Davey’s folded the prints to envelop size, taped, addressed, stamped, and mailed them to a friend or to a curator at the exhibition destination. Upon retrieval, the artist unfolded and flattened the prints before mounting them on the large panel. The markings of the mail process remain, with bits of colored tape, postal stamps, and handwritten addresses and notes adding layers of meaning to the images. This artistic exercise is literally “photography in dialogue.”
The subject is communication. In the subway, people are reading and writing but not talking. They are engaged in communication, but not with one another. The visual narrative replicates our conception of the realities of cities, where the lone traveler passively experiences multiple images, competing sights, and sounds.
The individual scenes come together to project an understandable but discontinuous image. The artist asks us to move frame-to-frame. So the work is read more slowly than a moving image shot in film would be. The panels unfold, revealing a story that can be appreciated no matter where one begins to read. There is no cascading plot here, no beginning or end. The story is ours to invent as well as receive.
“Birds of Prey” by Taryn Simon is another panel formed of a series of stills with literary associations. The collection was shot in Istanbul, and the sequence of frames was printed with the digital time records intact. This and the changing number and position of birds imparts a sense of movement through time. The “birds” title alludes to a book by ornithologist James Bond, whose name Ian Fleming adopted for 007, the hero of his spy novels. Istanbul became a favorite setting for Bond films, including the popular From Russia with Love and Skyfall. Simon’s works incorporate photography, text, literary symbolism, and graphic design. An artist with broad social concerns, her portrait series of wrongly convicted prisoners was inspired by the national Innocence Project and published as a book, The Innocents. Selected images from this justice project were shown in an exhibition at the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati in 2006.
Paul Graham’s mural-sized color photograph is another standout in this exhibition. It is a two-panel street scene, which the British artist shot in rapid sequence on 34th Street in Manhattan. The viewer is asked to read the diptych as one moving image. A storefront with a large sign advertises, “2 suits for $150,” The streetscape is static, but the pedestrians change, caught moving in and out of the picture plane.
Matthew Porter, a Brooklyn-based photographer produces work that maximizes the possibilities of digital manipulation. Here, he presents a show-stopper still, featuring an airborne muscle car sailing out into an urban space. While the vehicle appears to have been launched from an out-of-picture cliff, a little Google research reveals that Porter buys and photographs toy model cars, which he suspends overhead by string in his studio. He scouts American cityscapes for suitable launch spots to photograph as environments for his flying-car stunts. Porter has a following of national collectors and his work was in a 2013 exhibition of digitally manipulated art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He creates an evocative and distinctly American genre, which is technically, as well as conceptually, interesting.
Other artists included in this engaging exhibition are: Talia Chetrit, Daniel Gustav Cramer, Tacita Dean, Roe Ethridge, Robert Frank, Ryan McGinley, John Stezaker, and John Waters. Stills continues at the Michael Lowe Gallery, 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., Thursday – Saturday, through November 1, 2014.
–Sue Ann Painter