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Jack Radcliffe: A Study in Observation and Compassion

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 10/30/2002

A Study in Observation and Compassion

Jack Radcliffe

Harford Community College's Chesapeake Gallery through Nov. 16

It's easy to like Alison (above), because she defies the lens. While most portrait models suffer uncomfortably under the camera's scrutiny, she is familiar enough with the politics of the eye to know that she's in charge of what is given and what is withheld. She says as much with the grammar of her posture, in the way she fixes her shoulders, and the way she studiously ignores the camera, as if it were an ex-boyfriend trying to get her attention from across the room. It's likable and alluring, and she's the only subject in Jack Radcliffe's show of portraits who has such a sophisticated relationship with the lens. But she comes by it honestly. Radcliffe is her father, and he's been photographing Alison since she was born.

In Radcliffe's career survey show, on view now at Harford Community College's Chesapeake Gallery in Bel Air, this intrigue between father and daughter, artist and subject, goes unmatched. But the intimacy of his Alison photos helps to frame the relationships at work in Radcliffe's other portraits. Among them are sensitive renderings of the terminally ill, sampled from his 1996 series Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry. His profiles of patients ranging from determined to emaciated are deeply affecting, but they are not as difficult to look at as Radcliffe might think. Without any explanation of who the people are and what they are suffering from, it's difficult to see them as anything but anonymous victims, evoking more pity than compassion.

The effect is similar in Radcliffe's series on the Lily White drag queen troupe. He captures its members in transition from male to female, and stages sittings in which they stare glibly at the lens. But they pose like performers, burking the camera's efforts to get below the surface, and as a result they come across as little more than guys in dresses.

But in the end, it's unfair to compare these series with that of Alison, whose rapport with the camera obviously can't be topped. In the passage of years, Radcliffe has captured her in a pensive childhood moment by a riverbank, in a fit of adolescent alienation behind the wheel of a parked car, in an austere embrace with a troubled friend. These excursions into Alison's world are only heightened by her ongoing give and take with the camera--and her father--and those moments in which she gives freely to the lens feel like gifts indeed.

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