Saturday, July 28, 2007

Resistance and Biographical Landscapes

Two exhibitions now at the International Center of Photography are worth catching. "Let Your Motto be Resistance: African American Portraits" features 86 works drawn from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. "Biographical Landscapes: The Photography of Stephen Shore 1969-79" presents 164 color prints of this American photographer, including his series "Uncommon Places."

Arranged in roughly chronological order, "Resistance" begins wonderfully by juxtaposing two photographs. In the first, Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, flexes his right bicep, his arm stiff and straight, a gesture of phallic strength paralleled by the metal stake behind his bicep. Whereas he is half naked, W. E. B. Du Bois, in the second photo, is starched up in collar, tie and suit. His forehead is a gleaming dome of intelligence, and his well-kept moustache and beard give him classical gravitas.


Addison N. Scurlock
W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1911
Gelatin silver print
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


The rest of the exhibition presents an arresting array of photographs: political leaders and activists, musicians, composers, singers, writers, athletes, actors. As the curatorial note observes, the photograph does not merely record African American achievements, but also iconizes the achievers, transforming them into emotional focal points for the community, and into visceral refutation of white racism.

In this process of symbol-making, one of the most powerful photos interestingly does not capture achievement, but death. In the photo of a dead Martin Luther King, his youngest daughter's mouth forms an "o" of shock when she sees hum lying in his casket. I wonder what other equally powerful portraits could have been exhibited, if the curatorial direction has been broadened beyond the symbols of achievement. Besides the expected photo of Rosa Parks, what other iconic images of common African Americans provide portraits of resistance? After all, lionization is only one aspect of icon-making. Perhaps the limitation of the exhibition lies partly in the limitation of the portrait genre, as conventionally conceived.

A related thought has to do with the absence of curatorial notes on the photographic styles and conventions, though the exhibition blurb claims to "explore both aesthetic and vernacular styles." The note beside each photo explains carefully the achievements of its subject, but says nothing about the photographer. The effect of walking through the exhibition is that of a history lesson, when it could have been that and an art class. The one African American photographer featured is Arnold Eagle, as a subject, and not an artist. I would have liked to see his photos and what he would make of a theme like "portraits of resistance."



Arnold Eagle
Gordon Parks, 1945
© Estate of Arnold Eagle
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


The other exhibition, on the lower level, is about place, and not people, despite a few portraits. The photos are very often without people, even when the setting, for example, a motel room, is patently a habitat. Many of Stephen Shore's photographs remind me of the beauty of Edward Hopper's paintings, minus the human presence.



Stephen Shore
Room 316, Howard Johnson’s. Battle Creek, Michigan, July 6, 1973
© Stephen Shore
Courtesy Aperture Foundation


In the middle years of "Uncommon Places," Shore composed his photos with a center focus and linear perspective in mind. He discovered an astonishing range of objects to serve as the center, from a wooden pillar of the balcony of a house to a green car picked out from the scattered cars of a parking lot, from the corner of a roof projection to the diminishing point of a road. My favorite is the photo centered on the red light of a traffic signal, around which all the other elements of the road intersection scene fall into place, as if disposed like the oranges and apples of a still life painting. I can't find that one on the Center's website, so here is the one focused on the (small) green car:




Stephen Shore
Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
© Stephen Shore
Courtesy Aperture Foundation


What impresses me most about these photographs is their apparent artlessness. Shore worked with Andy Warhol's Factory, and was familiar with the uses of the found object and of popular culture. Those influences are evident in the works. However, whereas Pop Art wants to put the mundane into museums, Shore seems, to me, to put the muse back into the mundane. The man also has a mischievous sense of humor.



Stephen Shore
West Ninth Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October 2, 1974
© Stephen Shore
Courtesy Aperture Foundation

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