Dean Price, American Window(2001)
76th Annual International Competition: PhotographyThrough May 4, The Print Center 1614 Latimer St., 215-735-6090
The ghosts of Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Walker Evans or any number of photographers working before 1950 could drift through The Print Center’s international photography competition understanding and possibly admiring almost everything in it. The cumulative impression is that of a sensitive homage to the technology and formal underpinnings of photography, the most modern art form. This show also reminds us that many photographers working today are committed to skills of craft and representation.
Anne E. Havinga, photography curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, chose the 56 works from more than 1,200 submissions by 304 artists. The selection appears to reflect Havinga’s interests. Among the shows she’s organized are “Julia Margaret Cameron: Victorian Photographer” and “French Photography: Le Gray to Atget.” Her publications include Pictorialism and Naturalism in New England Photography.
In addition to the rigorous selection process itself, there are many prizes awarded in the contest, which is the oldest international photography competition in the U.S. The favored submissions are unobtrusively hung in groupings relating to topics such as people in motion, toylike objects, mirrors or statues. Texture seems to be an important component of almost every photograph Havinga chose. All the subjects are readily identifiable — though quite a few are surreal. And most are depicted in monochrome.
Pictorialism certainly informs David Bartlett’s photogravure, which, in its painstaking, old-fashioned process, as well as in its subject matter, is profoundly nostalgic. Buyck, MN/Stream #3 is an undefiled rural wilderness, a sequence of arched tufts of grasses and delicately leafed trees. Each detail, even in the sun-washed distance, is simultaneously soft and sharply etched with an aching intensity.
Modern compositions, such as Lesley MacVane’s study of a sundress or a swimsuit strap, skin and a shadow, or Walter Crump’s symmetrical Dead Twigs and Bridge, echo the abstract photographic language of the early 20th century.
The peaked roofs and relentless horizontal siding in Anna Semenov’s Suburbia or the mute domestic testimony of Erika Leppmann’s Arriving Home (124 Sunnyside Dr.), a color photograph of a garage interior, might almost have been made by Walker Evans trying to cope with contemporary life. S. Kaye Klein’s study of layered rolls of flesh from some unidentified part of the body, softly puckered with stretch marks and sprinkled with a few moles, is reminiscent of Edward Weston’s exploration of the curvy flesh of bell peppers.
The emphasis on black and white takes us back to the first half of this century and even earlier. The quixotic drift of light and soft-focus face of Li, by Molly Hatch Holland, inevitably evoke Julia Margaret Cameron, though Holland apparently has no need for Cameron’s self-conscious mythic subject matter. Yet those lowered eyes, that romantic haze and fetishization of a single delicate visage — Cameron would doubtless understand perfectly.
Would she equally comprehend the laurel-wreathed, toga-clad figure, flatfooted and frontal in Semenov’s Suburbia? Nah, it’s way too ironic. But, though this instance is effective, irony is in refreshingly short supply in this show.
Generously provided are social observations. Robin Radin’s depiction of two teenage couples, in Boyfriends, owes a lot to Dorothea Lange’s characteristic cool, objectified intimacy. Désirée Navab’s I am not a Persian Painting neatly combines print imagery with living humans. In Melissa Ann Janssen’s photograph, an overdressed child pageant contestant, the cynosure of tweaking, ministering adult hands, seems to swoon with mysterious emotion, while the tiny isolated child awaiting an X-ray in a dentist’s chair in Jen Kodis’ disturbing picture is strangely quiet.
Protection is Gabriela Laz’s peek into a red car interior. Under a fringed front window, an assemblage of saintly statuettes, rosaries and Communion cards, as well stray tubes of makeup and an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts, is visually and culturally engaging.
The one item that challenges earlier photographic definitions is a silver locket displayed on a velvet pillow. Nape not Nap (Myra Greene) contrasts a photograph of the back of the head and neck with a real lock of hair, reminding us of the relative powers of images and objects as well as the unique identity residing in a relatively “unimportant” part of the body.
In contrast to such intellectual concerns, Guennadi Maslov’s blurry photograph on watercolor paper of four large women dancing has a timeless human charm. There’s something rhythmic and touching in the print dresses and gently voluptuous gestures.
The ephemeral magic of photography and vision are suggested by Santa Monica Pier (Hiroshi Watanabe), a drift of sharply focused soap bubbles against a swirling out-of-focus midway. Paul Cary Goldberg’s Blue Pitcher, an Iris print in which colors emerge with Vermeerlike purity from an uncannily black background is even more impressive on the gallery walls than in The Print Center’s card. All the more reason to see it in person.