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Straight Shooters

Show Proves Documentary Photography Isn't Dead Yet

Andrew Elberfeld's "Mom, Dad, and Baby."
One of Irna Jay's "Havre de Grace Portraits"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 5/30/2001

The Necessary Document

Home: Toy Camera Photographs by Michelle Gienow

Desiring Infinity: An Installation by Minaliza1000

School 33 Art Center through June 15

Is documentary photography old-fashioned? Sometimes it seems that way. mIn the 1980s, many photographers started fabricating environments rather than shooting real ones; moreover, they favored cibachrome and related processes in which richly saturated colors made for the brightest colors this side of an MGM musical. Since the 1990s, many shooters have been working with computer-manipulated imagery; the fixed reality of the street increasingly has been replaced by the shape-shifting possibilities of a computer screen. Practitioners of traditional documentary photography--some of them still shooting in black and white, for God's sake--certainly seem to be trapped in an old aesthetic that's been relegated to the photographic history books.

Of course, that's just the superficial appearance of things. Look at contemporary documentary photography more closely--it is still valid in its techniques and its social messages. Newer trends in photography may have more sex appeal, but the five photographers showcased in The Necessary Document at School 33 Art Center prove that traditional procedures can still yield traditional pleasures. Curated by Charles Camp and Michela Caudill, this exhibit reminds us that a straight-on depiction of the real world hasn't lost its value.

It's compelling to follow H. Thomas Baird's black-and-white series documenting the devastation caused by a coal-mine fire that has been burning since 1962 beneath the Pennsylvania town of Centralia. The land is barren, and many of the houses have been abandoned. What makes the pictures so spooky is that you never see any flames, just smoke rising up from the ground as if this were volcanic terrain. The photographer focuses on the landscape and the derelict houses in a near-ghost town.

People figure more directly in some of the other photographers' series. Three years ago, Andrew Elberfeld began a black-and-white series documenting the work of his obstetrician father. He wanted to learn more about his dad's life, according to an artist statement, so this objectively presented series had a very personal motive. In effect, the photographer wondered: Who is that masked man hovering over pregnant women?

Elberfeld isn't the only photographer getting up close and personal to witness something as intimate as childbirth. Just as his relationship to his subject presumably made gaining such access easier, Pat Sullivan, a psychiatric nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had the connections to get just inches away from her subject. As she says in an artist statement, "I began taking photographs of my daughter and premature granddaughter to keep a record of her miraculous growth and development." Although Sullivan's black-and-white series documenting the birth of that granddaughter, Riley, is no more than adequate in the images' framing and lighting, the photos' emotional directness holds your interest. Seeing the tiny infant hooked up to all manner of monitoring devices makes you care about the life of young Riley.

Corrine Martin Diop focuses her lens on some grown women in her series of "Portraits of Women Who Work in Predominantly Male Professions." This series of color images chronicles women working in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, ranging from a pastor to an astronomer. The women's occupations often are suggested by uniforms and workplace backdrops in photos that otherwise are direct to the point of plainness. This series is an example of documentary photography wherein the social message trumps the lack of interest in any sort of creative presentation. Simply looking at a portrait of a service manager of a Pep Boys Automotive Supercenter--she's a Pep Gal, if you will--makes the point that women now work at just about any job that men do. It may be an obvious point, but one that still needs to be made.

The most creatively inventive photographer among this quintet is Irna Jay, whose background in Harford County newspaper publishing is the biographical underpinning for the large color photographs in her "Havre de Grace Portraits." Although people occasionally factor into her compositions, she mostly presents the town by showing the contents of its storefront windows (and the street life reflected in them). It's a nice way to get a sense of the place.

Jay's series also includes two photos that have undergone some digital manipulation. As she says in an artist statement, "They combine images of actual places in the town to create a fictional reality, and in that way suggest the uneasy conflict between the old and the new." These manipulations are relatively mild as such things go, but they raise questions left largely unaddressed by the exhibit as a whole. When photographers have a personal stake in their subject matter--and when they also deploy digital rearrangement in making their images--what happens to the detached stance and fidelity to observed reality that's traditional in documentary photography? This worthwhile exhibit would be stronger if it had more examples of documentary photos that prompt us to reconsider the usual definitions of nonfiction. Even if some photographers essentially remain documentarians, they can't be blamed for testing their form's limits with all the technological gizmos now available.

There is a lot of photography to consider at School 33. Besides the documentary exhibit in Gallery I, Michelle Gienow has a show to herself in Gallery II. A commercial photographer and photojournalist (she's a City Paper contributing photographer), Gienow is able to put professional polish and client expectations behind her with this exhibit. Indeed, she uses toy, plastic, and pinhole cameras that have inexpensiveness and unpredictability in common.

There's a raw and murky quality in the 17 photos in Gienow's exhibit, Home, which often present houses, trees, lawn furniture, and other basic outdoor elements as if they were primal props. The iris effects--plenty of shadows around the edges--make them seem like they're old dreams once again being called up before our eyes. The funerary statues and autumn leaves in some shots add to the melancholic quality. At the risk of seeming to shill for one of our own, this is a job well done.

While your eyes are getting a workout, check out the installation "Desiring Infinity," by an artist who goes by the name Minaliza1000. Lines of string running through the gallery complement the linear images being shown on a video screen, in effect using mathematics to conjure up metaphysics.

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