Photographer makes us extend our sensibilities

September 12, 2000|By Michael Olesker

JENNIFER BISHOP denies us cheap sentimentality. When she clicks her camera's shutter, she delivers no easy comforts and no reassuring cliches. You want cheap emotions, buy a Hallmark card. You want kittens playing with a ball of yarn, dig up an old Norman Rockwell. Bishop offers wry ironies that look unsettlingly like the truth.

She is the anti-Hallmark card, the anti-Norman Rockwell vision of our surroundings. Hey, Norm, put down that paint brush and come look at life! Bishop has been photographing Baltimore and the outer world for the last 23 years, mostly for the City Paper, briefly for the old News American, quite steadily for magazines and design firms and advertising agencies all over the world, and now she has her first solo show - "Men, Women and Children: 20 Years of Photographs" - at the new Photo Works gallery on Chestnut Avenue in the city's Hampden neighborhood.

She calls it "my take on the strangeness of everyday life in Baltimore." She stood there Sunday afternoon, at the heart of a lovely crowd gathered for the exhibit's opening day, talking about vulnerability.

She is expecting her second child in a few months. Every time she takes a picture now, she said, she feels the vulnerability of her child and translates it to those whose image she is taking.

In fact, that's always been reflected in her photographs. By refusing to accede to feel-good Rockwellian preconceptions, she makes us look at her work a little longer, and think a little more, and extend our sensibilities.

In "East Baltimore," we see kids romping in the spray of a water hydrant. Is there a more playful urban image in our lexicon, a more comforting sense of youngsters in their innocence? Well, yes. For here are two of the kids, at the edge of the hydrant's spray, with arms cocked, sullen, ready to rip out each other's Adam's apples - and reminding us of the thin line between youthful play and something more dangerous.

In another shot, a boy crouches at one end of a long bench with a toy pistol in his hand. It's an image right out of old cowboy movies, with their enduring vision of good guys wiping out bad guys. Oops! Now you realize where the kid's sitting, and where he's pointing his pistol. He's in church, and that's the crucifixion in his sight. The photo is called "Boy in Church."

In "Man on Swing," there's another cliche shot to hell. This is no cuddly grownup enjoying a brief romp. He could be Woody Harrelson in "Natural Born Killers," or one of the crazoids from "In Cold Blood" - or just an average, friendly guy hanging around a playground with an unfortunately menacing look. And we're not quite sure if he's dangerous, or just looks like it.

Bishop lets such questions hang in the air. We walk away from each shot with the taste of irony in our mouths. The pictures are black and white, but not the perceptions. Those, Bishop rearranges with every shot.

Born in Cleveland and raised in Massachusetts, Bishop, 43, looks like a smaller, darker version of Meryl Streep. She came here to attend the Johns Hopkins University, where she graduated in 1979 as a Writing Seminar major, and was one of the group that helped found the City Paper. For 17 years there, her work appeared as the signature piece on Page 3.

From the beginning, her work resisted the easy emotions, the conditioned-reflex response. At the new exhibit, there's a black kid standing on a patch of gravel. Before you can mutter anything about the plight of the poor, you notice the mural behind him: a butterfly. Within each of us is the possibility of flight.

In "Grandparents," we see a living room with children's furniture in front of a television. The furniture's been knocked over, and the room's in a kind of furniture turmoil. The center of the room, and the picture, and the most solid object in the room, is the television. And the picture on the screen? A complete blur.

In "Three Sisters," one little girl's holding her baby sister in her arms. She wants the little girl to smile, dammit. The girl is resisting. The big sister is twisting the little girl's expression, contorting her features. Behind them is the third sister, in the shadows, looking a little haunted by the scene.

The Photo Works Gallery, 3531 Chestnut Ave., a few blocks off the Falls Road exit of the Jones Falls Expressway, opens at 10 every morning but Mondays. Photo Works opened six months ago. It offers darkroom and printing facilities to photographers, and training and classroom workshops for amateurs.

And, for the next month, it offers the Baltimore visions of Jennifer Bishop.

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