Photos speak from experience Review: Scales' 'Pictures in America' offers immediate, touching impressions of humans being human.

January 30, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In Jeffrey Henson Scales' photo series "House's Barbershop," a tradition lovingly perpetuates itself even as it subtly changes.

A seasoned barber gives a young man a radical, patterned cut of triangles and squares while another barber lathers up an elderly man for a shave the way barbers have been doing it down the ages. Towels mingle with newspapers and jars of barber stuff on cluttered counters; photographs share the walls with mirrors. This barber shop's alive with activity and conversation, and it's almost possible to hear the tales passed down from generation to generation.

Scales' photographs immortalize an African-American institution in the African-American neighborhood of Harlem, but it also makes the black experience an American experience. The people in these photographs are African-American, but the message that comes across is of common ground.

Scales, now 43, has been a photographer for more than 30 years, since his father gave him a camera when he was 11. He works in series, and five of them constitute the traveling exhibit "Pictures from America by Jeffrey Henson Scales," which opened this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"The reason I have selected these pictures is that they speak of a broad American experience," Scales writes in a statement included in the newspaper-format catalog that accompanies the show. "An experience that can never be confined to some specialized categorization. They are fractions of American moments."

As that statement implies, Scales comes out of a documentary tradition, but with an interest in the more formal aspects of photography as well. Although his photographic prints may look like images of fleeting moments captured in an instant, they are carefully composed and richly toned. And Scales employs a square format rather than a horizontal rectangle, to induce the viewer to accept the image as a unified entity rather than "reading" it from left to right as a series of visual moments.

Thus Scales occupies a middle ground between the documentary and fine art traditions of photography, drawing on both. That he does so is surely due at least in part to his background. He is largely self-taught, rather than formally trained in one school or another.

He grew up in a well-to-do area of San Francisco, with a mother who painted and made films and a father who was an audio engineer and subsequently a consultant to anti-poverty

programs. His family was politically active, and he got to know well-known black activists, including Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver.

Soon after his father, an amateur photographer, gave him a camera, he started photographing Black Panthers, and his work was published in the Black Panther Paper when he was 14. He was strongly influenced by photojournalist Steven Shames and documentary photographer Gary Winogrand.

"Shames taught me an important lesson," Scales said in a recent interview from his Harlem home. "During the riots at Berkeley I wanted to get a telephoto lens, but he said that to get the image you need to be there. Standing half a block away is not the same. It was a very important lesson for a 13- or 14-year-old.

"My work is like Gary Winogrand's in that most of my work is as a street photographer, and I work every day. That working methodology was most influential to me when we met in Los Angeles. So many photographers do something only when they're given assignments and never realize their own potential."

Scales' work is primarily concerned with the African-American experience. In addition to "House's Barbershop," this show's "Harlem" and "Young Men" deal with that experience.

"Harlem," begun in 1985, is a portrait of the section of New York where he now lives. It includes pictures of people, buildings, street scenes and businesses. "It's a description of place and a kind of process of discovery," Scales said.

The series is not without depressing images, such as the trash-strewn street and evidence of destroyed buildings in "Christmas, 117th Street, Harlem, New York" (1986). But it's not without hope. Its pictures of people show fortitude, especially "Angel" (1987), of an elderly woman with a halo of white hair and a face that shows a lot of wear and disappointment but an unvanquished spirit.

"Young Men" contains photographs of both individuals and groups, and the groups range from musicians to gangs to fraternity brothers. One characteristic they all share, though, is the unmistakable vivacity of youth that shines through these pictures, none more so than "Five Young Men, 125th Street, Harlem, New York" (1989). It's the kind of picture that makes an older person remember Mencken's remark that he never envied anyone until he was 55, and then it was not for what others had but for what he had lost.

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