Subscribe to Blog via Email
Sometimes, taking a giant step back gives you a broader perspective on things. This can be especially true in documentary photography, which summons the viewer to absorb entire social situations. Such clarifying vantage points are in evidence in the solo shows of Bill Yates and the late Jules Aarons, now at Gallery Kayafas in Boston’s South End through April 4, 2015. Aside from offering unique glimpses of bygone times, these exhibits highlight how different two “street photographers” can be.
Bill Yates’ 1972-1973 series “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink” is an energetic rollick into the social lives of a rural, economically challenged Floridian community in the time of bell-bottoms and the Vietnam War. Shot primarily at night, when families gathered at the roller rink (often with parents lounging at the adjacent bar), Yates’ hard flash gives the antics of this ordinarily unnoticed group a paparazzi spotlight in which they gleefully bask and preen. Yates was merely in his twenties when he discovered this gem of an American microcosm and his shooting style carries that edginess.
Shot on film, primarily in medium format, the exhibit consists of a variety of gelatin silver prints made from the original negatives, with one vintage print included (see feature image). Most of the prints are traditionally smaller-sized, which has a gratifying, authentic feel, as well as a unifying effect with the abutting Jules Aarons exhibit. But the most captivating images are two oversized 40”x40” prints, whose high impact is undeniable, and an enormous 90 image composite (an archival pigment print, wherein each image is 6”x6”) in the style of a “contact sheet.” The effect is similar to seeing film footage as stills, but this mural delivers a condensed cacophony of stop-action shots that tells an unsettling story.
With the express aim of objectivity, Yates observes the “otherness” of reckless youth, a quality which is further accentuated by his hard flash. Softened only slightly by four elapsed decades, Yates’ viewpoint offers a wince-inducing reminder of the emblematic impulsivity of kids with nothing to lose at a time when America itself was diminished. By comparison, the images of Jules Aarons, captured on the impoverished streets of Boston’s North End and now-replaced West End in 1947, are filled with empathy.
Although Aarons, like Yates, was in his twenties and used a medium format camera when he made his street portraits, the similarities pretty much end there. Aarons was in a real sense returning to his own roots, having grown up in a NYC neighborhood similar to the ones he photographed in Boston. He shot exclusively in natural daylight, which was an important component in his careful compositions of casual street gatherings. Aarons preferred to navigate mostly unnoticed, angling his camera to imply an “insider” view in his embrace of multiple generations. The 13 small vintage prints on exhibit are the original photographs from a 1951 solo exhibit at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, constituting an important historical documentation of the West End of Boston before its urban renewal. But they are way more than that. Jules Aarons’ compassion for the residents of these cohesive immigrant neighborhoods shines through in every photograph. Holding a mirror up to two distinct geographic areas and eras, Aarons and Yates offer strikingly different views of the way we were.
For more information about this show, go to: http://www.gallerykayafas.com/
Feature image: “Sweetheart Series, Untitled. (Announcement R30-6), 1972-3” by Bill Yates (courtesy of the artist and Gallery Kayafas, Boston)