by Kevin Ott

Iris BookCafe and Gallery is an uncluttered but homey café/gallery on upper Main Street. Main between Central Parkway and Liberty has retained its DYI vibe, the bars, restaurants, cafes and retail still feeling a bit less polished than its more 3CDC-ish neighbor, Vine Street. Both are great, but Main Street and places like Iris somehow feel a bit more authentically urban. And, fitting into this urban ethos is William Messer’s enjoyable exhibit of black and white photos and accompanying text.

Theresa at Cafe BlaBla, Rotterdam, 1985

Much of Messer’s work was destroyed in a 2012 house fire, but this portfolio “Some Women, Some Stories” survived mostly in tack. The photos and text are spread around the café’s 2 rooms and hallways, chronologically from back to front, but I felt you could start anywhere as the stories each stand on their own.

The photos depict a variety of women, some nude, whom Messer has encountered or had affairs with over the last 40 years. They are nicely toned black and white pictures, the women seemingly un-posed, natural and often, beautiful. There is an obvious comfort between subject and photographer. But without the stories, they would just be nice, artistically composed pictures.

Installation Photo

The stories behind the photos’ origins tell us how Messer met the subject (usually while traveling abroad), their travels, the nature and depth of their relationship and some poignant details. Often when I look at photos such as these my mind wants to solve the mystery of  the relationship of subject to photographer. The mystery is solved here and it adds human texture to the pictures.

One of my favorites, “C, on my bed, Arles” depicts a nude young woman lying on a bed. But it is not a conquest narrative. She has come to his room and disrobed, but “just to talk”. Over the course of a few days, Messer discovers that she has grown up without her father, who, suddenly reappears at the hotel to reclaim his family. Messer reconnects with the woman several years later and notices that a distinctive mole has disappeared from her breast. The father had tied dental floss tightly around the mole and it had fallen off—a  poignant detail that leads your eye back to the photo and the mole.

M.L. on Desolation Row, Denver

“G, Café Bla Bla, Rotterdam”, is a fairly conventional portrait of clothed woman, arms crossed leaning on a table, her hair dark, short and wind-blown, her eyes and eyebrows lending an intensity to her look. The text tells us that Messer met her while he was recovering from an illness and, looking out a window sees “G” in a garden making sun tea. She works in a mental hospital,  has low self-esteem, and thinks of herself as unattractive. They travel to the sea, he photographs her and the resulting photo convinces her that she is not ugly, whereupon she quits the hospital, goes to art school, graduates and creates a successful career for herself. Did this picture change her life?

J. on the beach, Ste. Marie de la Mer, Arles, France, 1975

“T, London” is a mesmerizing picture of a woman who Messer has had an off and on affair with over some years and continents. At the time of this picture he realizes her true home is London and that their affair will end. He snaps her picture, but unknowingly the camera malfunctions, the film not advancing and he accidentally creates a perfect quad exposure. T’s image is ethereal, ghosted against moving clouds, shimmering city lights and the roofs of a cityscape. It is as if she is fading into London—her home—not his. This is the kind of pre-digital accident that makes you appreciate the days of film, printing and film advancer levers that aren’t working properly.

This is a show that makes you take time to view and read it. For the most part, it is worth it. One could question the motives of the photographer in chronicling his love life, but that probably doesn’t matter, as the show succeeds apart from or in spite of  that. Scattered around the café are at least a dozen other interesting photo/stories—so allow yourself at least a half hour. If the café is busy, in places, you have to read over people seated below. But there is plenty to see and read without disturbing diners. It is definitely worth the visit to the neighborhood, the café and ultimately William Messer’s exhibit.

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