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The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize 2010

Posted 7/7/2010

The Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2010 Finalists

Through Aug.1 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Nate Larson's "Geolocation (Come From Nothing)"

Nate Larson

Photographic representations of ordinary people tend toward the romantic and the statistical. There's a direct line through August Sander's photo-typology of the German people in the 1920s to the Farm Service Administration photography of the 1930s to contemporary photographer Rineke Dijkstra's haunting images of soldiers, women who have just given birth, and adolescents at the beach. Because these photographers selected the vital statistics of their subjects first, the images that result have a certain clinical chill, even when we connect with the individuals portrayed.

Nate Larson's work owes quite a bit to this portraiture tradition, even though his photographs included in this year's Sondheim show do not portray people. Instead, Larson uses tweets, 140-character messages posted by Twitter users, as a starting point. Because many people tweet from their cell phones, the location of the tweet is transmitted as well. Larson travels to the tweet's origin and takes a photograph. The prints are labeled with the tweet's text, allowing you to draw connections between the tweeter and an image of where he or she was hours, days, or weeks earlier.

In many cases, the connections between the tweeter and the place are too easy to draw. In "Sneaking Suspicion," the text in which someone complains about being laid off is placed with an image of a Chicago office building. On the left side of the photograph is the right shoulder and the computer bag of an office worker, allowing you to imagine that the tweet was sent seconds before the photograph was taken. Larson selects tweets that capture the idiom of the nascent medium, keeping the uncapitalized pronouns, the run-on sentences, and the abbreviated slang.

By using tweets as an origin point, Larson necessarily engages in the discussions about the relationship between publicity and privacy. The most interesting photographs here are those taken outside of people's homes, with the text expressing what are clearly very private thoughts. One photograph, taken at night, shows a suburban house with yellow vinyl siding illuminated by a security light. The accompanying text reads, "Why doesn't he understand I dnt want to be kissed let alone seen while I'm sick. Ugh". Even though you don't see the subjects of Larson's photographs, seeing their material possessions and their environment allows you to read these private, often dark feelings in context.

The best photograph is also the most ambiguous. A rack of coats of all styles and sizes, presumably in a thrift store, is accompanied by the tweet, "When u come from nothing, anything is something." The photograph itself could have been taken by Walker Evans, who recognized that sometimes people could be best represented through their material possessions. But the enigmatic tweet suggests a despairing hope, turning this most ordinary of images into something vivid and complex, one that connotes both the cruelty of the statistic and the hope of the heart. (Martin L. Johnson)

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