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Shutter Bugs

MFA's Annual Photo Show Has Lots of Glitches, but Also a Fix or Two

Blind Dates: Photographs like "Wall Flowers," by Jane Vanden Eynden, invite you to get to know the people in the image.

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 10/23/2002

Photography 2002

Maryland Federation of Art's City Gallery through Nov. 23

Good photographs give you a way in. They signal to you, in a code as vivid as it is mysterious, that just by looking at them, you are encroaching on another world. They turn that first glance you give them into an enticement, a suggestion that what you see is worth looking into more deeply. This holds true for photography in all its dialects--landscape, portrait, still life, documentary, digital. But the overtures that such successful photos make to your eye can be terrifically subtle, and, as the Maryland Federation of Art's new show Photography 2002 demonstrates, finding that way in can be harder than you'd guess.

The exhibition, now on view at MFA's City Gallery, culls images by photographers from around the country, in a process that was juried by Sally Packard, co-owner of the Edward Carter commercial photo gallery in Lewes, Del. And perhaps it's Packard's experience in the marketplace that gives this show its nakedly mercantile feel. By and large, her selections reflect an interest in decorative, but not very engaging, straight shots. There are pictures of little girls in Sunday dresses, closeups of dewy autumn leaves, limpid shots of mirroring lakes, and at least five pictures of boats. But her best selections, and there are enough of them to buoy up the exhibition, go a long way toward illuminating the ways in which the others fall short. Many of the weaker entries--like Jerry Sitrin's archly titled "Phantasm," nothing more than a shot of a bicycle's shadow on a brick walkway--give you little reason to look and even less to linger. Their only aim is to depict. But the show's most successful shots strive to do the opposite--they entice you with what's hidden. They prove, in other words, that the art of the photo is as much about concealment as it is about revealing.

This idea is pretty much literally brought to bear in the show's most riveting image, Nannette Vinson's "Untitled (From the 'Conversations From the Footprint Machine' Series)." It's a tight--almost intimate--closeup of a sheep, standing still and helpless before the lens. The animal is covered almost entirely in a cloak of heavy-gauge canvas that obscures its head, eyes, and back. Apertures have been cut out in only three places that we can see: two where its ears loll down along the sides of its head, and one in front, where a white mouth and nose protrude, focused sharply enough to reveal an eddy of snot gathering at the corner of the sheep's left nostril. It's an off-putting shot, and more than a little disturbing. There's no telling what event awaits the sheep, or why the animal has been hooded in anticipation of it, and the sense of powerlessness is somehow spellbinding. In the end, when it comes to what's going on or what will happen next, we don't know any more than the sheep.

That element of mystery can work just as fully in more abstract shots, and Mary McCoy's "Sand Pattern" hangs as evidence. The title tells you plainly enough that this is a view of tidewater traces left in the sand. Seawater has etched tiny rivulets into a beachhead shot at hyperclose range, but at first blush, it's difficult to tell just what the frame contains. It's a pattern that repeats itself in nature on so many scales that you don't quite know what order of magnitude you should be working in, thanks to McCoy's having robbed you of any context. For the moment, it's nothing but a series of tendrils branching out with a familiar kind of repetition, owing to some arcane organic mathematics. It could be frost crystallizing on a windowpane. Or fossilized fern fronds pressed into mud. Or an aerial view of the riverine lines that summer runoffs have left in a desert plain. And matters are made even more muddy by "Sand Pattern"'s subtlety of tone. McCoy shot this tight patch of shoreline in color, but she takes pains to make little use of it. The sand is so wet and the light is so dim that the whole scene seems washed in a supple, slate-gray light. There's something to be said for those times when tools go underused.

After a while, though, all these nuances can seem pretty formal, like little more than parlor games about what the shot's real topic is, what technique was used, or what the photographer was thinking when the shutter tripped. But all that can seem academic compared to what the lens can do when it confronts real human drama. That's where Jane Vanden Eynden steals the show. The only shot of its kind in the exhibition, her "Wall Flowers," is enough to remind us how enticing good documentary photography can be. Her exposure not only offers you a way in, it begs you to stay and introduce yourself to the people inside. While a few images in Photography 2002 manage to get you wondering about what's going on in the frame, "Wall Flowers" practically invites you to invent a story of your own to go along with it.

The scene is deceptively simple. Two girls in their mid-teens are sitting in a living room, dressed up and waiting for their prom dates. They're big girls with small hands, wearing baby fat in some places and taffeta in others. They sport showy gowns, strap shoes, and fake pearls and rhinestones in their freshly curled hair. But they look heavily unhappy, or at least powerfully bored, as they sit distractedly at opposite ends of a floral-print sofa. On the right, one girl stares dead-eyed just to the left of the lens, gazing without expression as the fingers of one hand absently pick at the fingernails of the other. A TV remote teeters on the couch arm next to her. Her companion, meanwhile, sits with her attention focused on a cheap point-and-shoot camera in her lap, which she struggles to load with film. Her face is as impassive as her girlfriend's.

It makes for a poignant juxtaposition. In what's supposed to be a moment of heady anticipation--just a few minutes before the adult play-acting of the high-school formal begins--there's nothing but listlessness. Though outfitted for glamour, the two girls are caught in a mundane, domestic set piece, with ugly furniture as their setting and chintzy gadgets as their props. This is their real life and, in many ways, it's freighted with everything that they're dressed up to escape--if only for a few hours, when they will drink and dance and make out and take pictures of each other with that autofocus camera, to help them remember this night the next time they're sitting on that floriated couch, watching television and picking their fingernails. The camera, you can't help but decide, in the script you're writing for them as you look, will for them be a way out.

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