Holniker's eye pierced meaning -- but watched with compassion

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 27, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The photographer Jennifer Bishop says she labored all summer to think of something dignified and formal to say about her late friend Barry Holniker. Nothing came to her. Formality is VTC not her strong suit.

Finally, just before the photographic retrospective bearing Holniker's name opened a week ago at the BAUhouse, in the 1700 block of North Charles Street, somebody told her, "Just tell a story about Barry."

The words came unleashed, and she says she wrote the following in an instant:

"Barry and I stopped at a bar in Tennessee and met a one-eyed cowboy. Half of his face had been gored by a bull, and he could remove his glass eye and hold it in the palm of his hand. The lady bartender fell in love with Barry and gave him a pair of nail clippers.

"Later, while crossing the train tracks in the dark, we found ourselves surrounded by children with toy guns staging a war from behind parked cars. Then we came across a playground of spaceships and missiles and just the sound of bugs tapping against the street lights. We talked and walked, and even the basement bingo game was over.

"We turned down darker streets, looking into windows to watch people sleeping by the blue light of their TVs and one sleeping by an aquarium glowing green until a neighbor yelled, 'What are you looking for? And why don't you find it and go home?'

"We laughed because I guess we knew we were spectators, that we couldn't stop looking."

It's what photographers do: They keep looking. Then they show us as we are, and not merely as we think we are. In the ceaseless rush of events, they put a hold on time. They slow things down long enough for us to try to figure things out, to try to see what happened back there when everything was happening too quickly to digest.

In his 34 years, Barry Holniker saw the world with a rare mix of playfulness and poignancy, with an appreciation for life's little absurdities and also for the mindless little bruises it inflicts along the way.

He was a journalist, but not in the traditional sense. He didn't go after the big stories, but the routine lives that people lead while nobody's supposed to be watching.

His best stuff reminds us of Henri Cartier-Bresson's remark about his battered old camera being "my sketchbook, my diary, my psychoanalyst's couch. It is my machine gun, my big hot kiss. It is my guess of what life is."

Holniker's life ran out a year ago. He was injured when a car ran a red light and hit his car, and he died two days later.

What he left behind, though -- photographs he took for newspapers and magazines around the country, peeks at human beings and the emotions they wear -- is now on display at the BAUhouse.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 20, Tuesdays through Saturdays, and it is stirring.

Here are ballet students at the Baltimore School for the Arts, looking elegant as the little figurines atop a child's music box. To watch them now is to sense the woolly dreams that must have been stirring inside their heads.

Here are shots from summer a year ago, on a magazine assignment to Eastern Europe. History isn't the stuff of textbooks, it's human beings trying to find their place in its

chaotic swirl. Among the shots: a Hungarian farmer with a scythe, looking like death itself.

"Barry lived life on the edge," Jennifer Bishop, a marvelous photographer in her own right, was saying the other morning. "He was always taking risks. The second he got something successful, he would try something else. He was constantly experimenting."

Here's a group of girls in little two-piece bathing suits, caught somewhere between innocence and adulthood, in a shot Holniker snapped at Rocky Point, in Essex, in 1979.

They were all very young then, both Barry and the girls in their bathing suits. Barry was just developing his photographic eye. The girls in their swimsuits are standing there in various states of physical development, poised for a moment between where they've been and where they're going.

A nearby photo shows another young lady on a beach: Miss Atlantic City, 1987. But she's not having as much fun as the girls from Essex. She's got her hands up in the air to hold her crown still, and to keep her shellacked hair from blowing in the Atlantic ,, wind.

She's lost everything those girls from Essex still have. If photographs could talk, you'd hear laughter coming out of their mouths. Miss Atlantic City? She's defensive, she knows she's got to look perfect for the camera or lose the sense of who she's supposed to be: the girl everybody else is supposed to want to be.

What happens to all the young girls on the beaches? Well, between these two photos is a beauty salon in 1988, in Highlandtown. And it strikes you: Ah, so this is where the girls have gone. They're sitting under driers, their hair in huge curlers, the giddiness and the naturalness of youth gone away.

"Barry," says Jennifer Bishop, "was funny, but he was soulful, too. He imagined what it was like to be that person he was photographing. He was never trying for the cliches, never the idealized view of something. He had an empathetic eye."

How sad to lose him so young. How nice that he left such lovely evidence of his kind soul and his artistic heart behind.

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