'Portrait': a simple elegance developed Familiar truths in strangers' faces

June 01, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

There's Daddy with the twins in a double stroller. The twins look a little apprehensive, like they're not quite sure what's going on, but Daddy, he looks just as pleased as punch.

There's the guy in the plaid shirt, hands on hips, an expression of pride and almost defiance on his face, who seems to be saying, "Here I am. This is me. Take it or leave it."

There are the five pictures of six kids with bikes (one picture has two kids in it), all with different expressions on their faces: proud, serious, delighted, intense, straightforward, slightly amused.

There are the two pictures of boys with baseball bats, one the all-American freckle-faced kid with the Mickey Rooney expression, the other more withdrawn and thoughtful.

You look at the pictures in "Baltimore Portrait," of those people in front of a plain white background, and at first they don't look like much of anything at all. People mostly just standing there looking at the camera.

But you look a little while, and they begin to be recognizable. You feel as if you know the expression and what it means; it tells you something about that person, and the something, if not the person, you've met before.

The pictures in "Baltimore Portrait" were taken by the photographic team of J. Brough Schamp and Tom Guidera III. Since 1990 they have taken their camera to various outdoor locations in Baltimore -- Druid Hill Park, Federal Hill, Fells Point, etc. -- and put a white backdrop in front of it (a painter's dropcloth, actually).

Then they photograph anybody who comes along and wants to be photographed; the subject gets an instant Polaroid print out of it, and the photographers get a negative that can be used to make big prints later. Schamp and Guidera don't tell the subjects how to pose, and they don't fool around with the camera, either; they merely adjust the height so the subject pretty much fills up the frame.

We get these people with virtually nothing to keep us from looking at them unencumbered. We get them without any photographer's artifice. We get them without the distraction of setting.

We don't even know their names, which can provide a kind of false identity; suppose, for instance, the otherwise ordinary-looking guy is named Rockefeller -- makes you think, doesn't it? We don't know anything about them but what we see. In fact, I don't even know if the guy with the twins is really their daddy -- that's an assumption; but I do know the picture is about being a daddy.

It would be possible to overpraise these pictures. "Baltimore Portraits" would have been a better title than "Baltimore Portrait," which implies that these people somehow add up to a portrait of their city. That's asking too much of them.

And they don't add up to any grand generalizations about the human condition. The universals they represent are more personal than that -- a character trait, a revealing hint of emotion.

But they are worth seeing because in one of them, or maybe more, I bet you'll see yourself.


What: "Baltimore Portrait," photographs by J. Brough Schamp and Tom Guidera III

Where: City Hall Courtyard Galleries, 100 N. Holliday St.

When: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; through July 23

$ Call: (410) 396-4721

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