A good curator makes a difference Review: At School 33, four photographers look to the past.

March 18, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

One might think a good show starts with a good idea, but it doesn't: It starts with a good curator. Good ideas don't have good curators, but good curators have good ideas.

Independent curator Michelle Lamuniere's show "Evidence of the Past" at School 33 brings together four photographers whose work refers to photography's early history. But elements of style and the works' subjects, more than specific references, contribute to a historical flavor that pervades the show in a most appealing way.

Laurie Snyder works in part in cyanotype, a process dating to the 1840s that produces a blue-tinted print, which, like sepia, imparts a sense of age. But more important, her works deal with memory, fortunately without falling into cliche and sentimentality.

Snyder produces photographic books whose titles reflect the past: "I Miss My House Book," "Some of My Mother's Things," "Apples and Houses: In Memory of My Mother's House and Her Apple Orchard." The best of these, "Some of My Mother's Things," consists of 18 prints that constitute a portrait. Pictures of growing flowers, keys, a robe, bolts of cloth, music stands, tTC rakes, Easter eggs and other objects add up to more of a portrait than a single likeness usually achieves. The book ends with a photograph of seed pods, a reminder of woman as progenitor.

James DuSel prints his photographs with a palladium process that dates from the 19th century. It gives a softness of tone that makes the images look old. And his choice of subject matter, his compositions and his unpopulated images add to the impression.

He shoots bits and pieces of buildings (a piece of a doorway, part of a flight of steps) that look familiar whether they are or not. Instead of composing his images so that they look complete unto themselves, DuSel cuts things off so that the viewer senses there's more left unseen, like a snippet of conversation overheard. And leaving the pictures unpopulated gives them the air of having waited for the viewer to come upon them. All this adds up to the sense of memory recovered; DuSel's art feels as if it has come out of the viewer's past.

Susan Fenton's hand-colored portraits of Japanese subjects wearing a variety of headgear (a rope tied around the head, a geisha wig) also have layered associations with the past. Portraiture has been a major subject of photography since its beginning. Hand-coloring recalls the days before color photography. And Fenton's static, centered, head-and-shoulders images recall 15th-century portraits by artists such as Rogier van der Weyden and Piero della Francesca.

Richard Torchia's ingeniously simple installation employs a camera obscura (dark chamber), a forerunner of photography whose principle was discovered in ancient times. Put a single lighted object into a dark chamber, project its image through a lens onto an opposite wall, and the image appears, upside down. The projected object in Torchia's installation is an hourglass filled with sand. Since it appears upside-down, the sand seems to be flowing from the lower chamber into the upper one. The effect is as if time flows backward.

Time indeed flows backward in this fine show, so exciting in its quiet way that the viewer emerges feeling younger than before.

Historical flavor

What: "Evidence of the Past: Four Contemporary Photographers"

Where: School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; through April 11

Call: 410-396-4641

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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