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In the 2015 Danforth Art Museum’s esteemed New England Photo Biennial, juror Susan Nalband has crafted an unexpectedly straightforward exploration of “the things we value” – culturally, environmentally, and personally. Stripped away are the gimmicky trappings of instant media, visual trickery and trendy apps. Left are the basic tenets of photography: visual impact, content and execution. It reminds me of the old adage, popularized by Theodore Roosevelt (and later used to describe his approach to foreign policy), “speak softly and carry a big stick; you’ll go far”.
More than 300 photographers submitted nearly 1500 images for this show, which features 63 works by 55 artists. Nalband’s steep selection process and the vision of the Danforth’s Head Curator, Jessica Roscio, combine to give the exhibit an intuitive cohesion and easy flow throughout its three galleries. In the front gallery, a documentary approach predominates, with illustrations of our social customs and interactions, often across cultures. I’m especially gratified to see so many portraits, both formal and environmental, exemplifying the significant ways in which we regard and relate to each other.
Three penetrating portraits each by Daniel Clapp and Michael Joseph mirror each other on adjacent walls, their tight framing and shared B&W format accentuating the emotional contrasts between them. Clapp’s close shots of homeless men brim with humanity. They appear old and weathered but with open, guileless expressions, while Joseph’s slightly wider framing of youthful train-hoppers seem watchful and guarded. Armored with elaborate tattoos, piercings, vocal hats and hairstyles, and the nearly ubiquitous kerchief emblematic of their transitory lifestyle, these kids appear both defended and defenseless, their trappings serving as scant protection against a harsh world.
Joseph and Clapp’s high-impact photographs beg us to consider our tacit social contracts with the fringes of mainstream American society, while quieter work such as Jill Brody’s wonderfully patterned composition of Montana’s Hutterite community in “Cleaning the Stairs” and Camilo Ramirez’s arresting nighttime desert “Arabian Horse and Trailer” allow us to consider the wider net that our melting pot encompasses. The ways in which we value connection are explored in a more personal way in the series of duos on one gallery wall – Zoe Perry-Wood’s shyly affirming gay couple “Kyle and Jonah” on prom night or Dana Mueller’s “Mother and Daughter, Thuringian Forest, Germany”, a subtle portrayal of the unspoken dialog intrinsic to this complex relationship. Weddings, county fairs, tarot card readers, a mother with kids sprawled across a park bench on a sweltering July day, all offer unique views of that which we hold dear: community.
The Biennial’s middle gallery is devoted to imagery of the physical landscape and the sometimes fraught, often wondrous, relationship we share with it. The photographs here are perhaps the most technically experimental and varied, with a series of serene, beautifully rendered 8”x10”contact-print cyanotypes by Ivana George, Doug Johnson’s “Sandlines”, an array of 12 images meditating figuratively on the sands of time and David Ricci’s fanciful, engaging and enormous 15-image graphic “Which Winch?”. This is balanced on the gallery’s opposite wall by Dirk Ahlgrim’s equally colossal photograph of the winter that left us reeling, with five construction vehicles rendered toy-like as they work the mountain of “Snow Farm 1”. It is its own brand of awesome.
The surreal verges on whimsical in Dorothy Amore Pilla’s “Arctic Blast” and “Sandstorm Coming”, whose streaking, akimbo landscapes warn of dire consequences, but they’re so dynamic and vibrant that they’re more reminiscent of a fantastical amusement park. The eerie yellow palette and sneaky incongruity of a beach-clad woman in Stephanie Arnett’s bleak “Native Structures, 04244.8” hint at a much scarier dystopia. Many artists explored man’s interactions with the environment through abstraction, as in Mark Eshbaugh’s “Chelmsford, MA #5767”, reflecting a forest in a riveted building façade or Gregory Albertson’s “Rim at Ruuvon Patera”, leaving us to wonder if we’re viewing a massive stone ridge or macroscopic view of a tree trunk. In vivid still-lifes that highlight the fleeting nature of life, Mary Kocol’s crystalline “Two White Peonies” sparkle seductively in ice, in striking contrast to Steven Duede’s lushly decomposing flora in “Evanescence XXXVII”.
The ephemeral spirit manifests itself fully in the back gallery of the show, where the imagery goes deep into the emotional realms of memory and time. Here the topics are suffused with familiarity and nuance in photographs that are elegantly direct. Each seems to begin a narrative the viewer is meant to finish. I was drawn by the magnetism of Christopher Turner’s glowing poolside “Elspeth”, as if a soaked child seeing this grandmother through chlorinated eyes. Robert Moran’s “Summer Afternoon, St. Shotts, Newfoundland” beckons through whispering fog back to my childhood Cape Cod summers. In B&W prints as different as Corinne DiPietro’s “Off Route 1”, depicting a filthy, draped canvas in a truck’s cargo bay set against an incongruously glorious sunset, and Bill Franson’s “Blanc”, playing reflections off a dreamy storefront wedding dress, both composition and tonal range are commanding, but it is finally the mood they inspire that imbues these photographs with mysterious splendor, somehow managing to embrace both hope and despair.
Rosemary Marchetta takes the biggest swing at stopping time in her sweet image of a young girl mounted onto a rectangular array of weighty bricks and chains on the gallery floor in “Growth”, a noble and vain attempt to arrest the inevitable march of childhood. And then, there is the poignancy of “Parachute”, Amiko Li’s sensitive portrait of trust, in which a woman’s hands dance lightly above the open palms of the companion reaching forward from behind her. The faceless composition, the directional amber light, the poised fingers, imbue this tentative gesture with hushed anticipation and profound tenderness. Indeed, photographs of the things we value.
The 2015 New England Photography Biennial can be viewed at Danforth Art Museum in Framingham through December 6, 2015, but there are two public receptions planned: one for museum members only this Saturday, September 19, 2015 from 6:00 – 8:00pm and one during the museum’s free Fall Open House on Sunday, September 20, 2015 from noon – 5:00pm. In addition, several artist talks will be held in the Photo Biennial galleries. For more information about the exhibit, schedule of artist talks, directions and hours, go to: http://www.danforthart.org/newenglandphoto2015.html
Feature Image: Detail from “Parachute, 2012” by Amiko Li, winner of 3rd Prize Juror’s Award (courtesy of the artist and Danforth Art, Framingham, MA).