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Street Cred

In Its New Photo Show, the BMA Asks, "Is It Studio or Is It Street?" We Ask, "Does It Matter?"

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 11/27/2002

A father with a shirt of pastel stripes and a helmet of Brylcreemed blond hair sits on his driveway wall. It's the weekend and he's dressed down, maybe a little too much. His khaki shorts are so terrifyingly tight that they form a deep declivity in the inseam of his crotch. In his manicured left hand smolders a half-smoked Panetella, and his right is cradled around the boyish waist of his stunning 10-year-old daughter. She's his young distaff doppelgänger: blond, fresh-faced, and precociously pretty. Around her right wrist is a plastic band like the kind in-patients are given when admitted to emergency rooms. And her eyes are fixed rigidly on something far off, something due opposite the face of her father who cozies up to her so closely. She's looking away from him with such deliberation that it's as if her line of sight is actually pulling her away. Under his grip, she seems so uncomfortable that, were she not frozen still, you know she would be squirming.

The question is: What do we make of this? Is this display some kind of family portrait gone south? Or is it a weighty moment between daughter and father that we were never meant to see? The answer, when you see it in the Baltimore Museum of Art's new exhibit Parallel Tracks, is: neither. But more importantly, it doesn't matter. And that's the problem.

The creepy scene comes to us from documentary photographer Joel Sternfeld, in "Canyon County, California, July 1983," the closing image of a show that aspires to trace the history of photography through its two major veins--posed "studio" photography and more journalistic "street" photography. But the decision that the show asks you to make about this picture--is it posed or is it candid?--ends up being a hollow one. The shot itself is staged, in that both father and daughter are sitting for the camera, but the menacing dynamic between them is real enough. So whether the shot is "studio" or "street" is about as important as whether a loaded gun has been polished or not. It either works, or it doesn't.

This is just one measure of the deep-running ambivalence that threads through Parallel Tracks. Wall text for the exhibit explains that its aim is not to enforce the fuzzy, unimportant distinction between what's "studio" and what's "street" but merely to explore it. But curators chose to do this by culling some of the most salient pictures from the BMA's photo collection and situating them on opposite walls: "Studio" on one side and "Street" on the other. At worst, seen all at once, it's a mighty instructive display of some of photography's most important images. But at best, it succeeds in proving that the very premise of the show is meaningless.

It all starts with the "Studio" side and a print of Roger Fenton's "Nubian Model" from 1858. There, a fleshy young odalisque reclines in an Oriental setting, lush with tapestries and pillows; what the sparse label text doesn't tell you, though, is that this exotic scene was shot in Fenton's London studio, and the model was from no farther east than Ipswich. Take it as a double warning: There's a lot more going on in these pictures than you can tell just by looking, and for some reason, the show isn't willing to let you in on the secrets.

At least some stops on the "Studio" time line are straightforward enough in their manipulations, and the closer you get to the present, the more obvious those maneuvers seem. In her tantalizing 1983 self-portrait, photographer Cindy Sherman makes herself up as an imitation Marilyn Monroe. William Wegman makes an obligatory appearance with his trademark Weimaraner, who sits and stares at the clay bust of another dog. And Laurie Simmons takes all of these stagey conceits and reduces them to the size of a shoe box: Her "New Bathroom" portrays the diorama of a dollhouse lavatory, where the figurine of a flouncy blond housewife kneels by a miniature bathtub, her arm outstretched in a pose that suggests impending self-slaughter. It's fitting enough. The "Studio" sequence begins with a real model who was not what she pretended to be and ends with a set piece that is entirely engineered, right down to the vaguely threatening sense it suggests.

If this first strand of the exhibit offers a lot of engaging photographs but advances few ideas, the second simply seems to muddy matters. Most of the earliest shots under the "Street" wing--an abandoned 19th-century meat market, a still shop window, a Paris pissoir--are unpopulated, or very nearly so, which gives them less of a "street" feel than a sense of mere scenery. Others, like the ghostly 1934 photo of a street lamp by Ilse Bing, are as manipulated as any studio shot. Outside the halo of the gas lamp's light in Bing's silver print, the photo goes into negative, with bright accents turning black and vice versa. Again, nothing in the exhibit acknowledges this, but Bing achieved this effect through a re-exposing technique called solarization. So is this image placed here out of error? Or as some kind of test to the viewer? As it turns out, a curator for Parallel Tracks acknowledged in an interview that many of the "Street" photos earned their place on the wall "because they took place in the street."

That helps explain a lot of the confusion, inconsistency, and slipperiness of the show. And if there's a place where all of those problems find a home on these walls, it's in the exhibit's most famous image: "The Critic," by the notorious New York paparazzo Weegee. Here, two jewel-dripping dowagers make their grand entrance at a glitzy Manhattan opening in 1943. Their faces are pinched and birdlike, and their bony necks and arms barely seem able to bear the burden of their diamond tiaras and encrusted bracelets. Admirers look on from the left, but to the right stands a vagrant, teetering drunk, who seems to belch epithets at the two as they pass. It's a scene that a street photographer could only dream of, a decisive moment that captures all of the imbalances and immodesties of the day. And it's all thanks to the besotted onlooker who happened to be at the right place at the right time. Well, not really. "The Critic," in fact, was as arranged as any Sears portrait session. To create this exchange, Weegee actually recruited a Bowery transient, got her drunk, sent her into the opening-night fray on cue, and then began shooting. Once more, Parallel Tracks makes no mention of this. But at this point there seems little use in bringing it up. By the time you get a few photos down the line to Joel Sternfeld's "Canyon County," it's clear that the exhibit has no interest in addressing the questions that it begs.

In the end, that's what's most frustrating about Parallel Tracks: It makes an issue of a pretty dreary matter--what's "studio" and what's "street"--and then, after raising it, refuses to delve into the dirty details. But the fact is that there are many photographers out there who have waded waist-deep into this issue, and they've actually managed to make it interesting. Young artists who are just now cresting the critical horizon--like Malerie Marder, who uses her family and friends to enact fictional, sexualized scenes--make a point of deliberately staging photographs to make them seem "street." If any photographers like her were included--or even mentioned--in the show, it would have gone a long way in advancing the discussion that Parallel Tracks halfheartedly opens, gums on for a while, and then abandons. But instead, the show comes across as a little more than dishonest, and it does it in ways that remind you of Sternfeld's closing driveway scene: It turns on your curiosity but shies away from satisfying it, and it lets you know just enough to sense that the most important things are, for some reason, going unspoken.

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