Photos depict what people leave behind

Photography: Show also investigates the relationships between images.

Fine Arts

March 12, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The University of Maryland Baltimore County's photography archive is one of the great under-appreciated treasures of the region, and it deserves to be far better known than it is. This month, galleries at UMBC are presenting the work of two important photographers, Nathan Lyons and Edward West. Their pictures deserve wider audiences.

Lyons is a longtime curator, educator, critic and artist, and his show Riding First Class on the Titanic! in UMBC's main library gallery demonstrates why he is so highly regarded.

The show presents all 200 or so pictures that Lyons published in a recent book of the same title, and whose subjects span the last 30 years of America's social landscape. The black-and-white photographs are relatively small by contemporary art photography standards, measuring no larger than 5-by-7 inches, and they are framed in pairs, as they would appear on facing pages of a book.

This arrangement allows the individual photographs to talk to each other in a dialogue structured by the photographer, both through his choices of paired images and in the overall sequencing of pictures on the wall.

Like Robert Frank, whose groundbreaking 1950s-era photo-essay The Americans established postwar photography as a potent instrument of social commentary, Lyons' work focuses on the quotidian and the everyday. But unlike Frank, his photographs are entirely devoid of images of people.

Instead, Lyons photographs the evidence of people's presence - buildings, store windows, billboards and scribbled graffiti, the richly complex, often contradictory signs of contemporary urban America. This tradition goes back to Walker Evans' documentary photographs of the 1930s, but Lyons enlists it in the spirit of Frank's serial images rather than Evans' individual masterpieces.

For Frank, it was the sequence of photographs rather than any single image, no matter how artful, that conveyed the aesthetic burden. Though many of his pictures subsequently have achieved near iconic status through constant repetition, the conception of The Americans was based more on the poetic and suggestive relationships among groups of photographs than on the formal elements within individual images.

And so it is with Lyons, whose pictures seem to chatter incessantly among themselves, allowing us to eavesdrop on the boisterous cacophony that is America's authentic vernacular voice.

This is a show that is truly Whitmanesque in its ambition and range of expression, reminding us that pictures are visual poems as well as likenesses, and that the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

Views of South Africa

Edward West's large color photographs from South Africa at the gallery in UMBC's fine arts building explore another kind of pairing, that of people and their shadows.

For West, an African-American photographer who teaches at the University of Michigan, the shadow is a metaphor for the invisibility that black South Africans endured under the country's brutal apartheid regime. Their newly won political power is mirrored by their emergence into the light.

West's best photographs have a lovely, painterly quality that distinguishes them from straight news reporting or documentary. They are visual tone poems that evoke moods rather than suggest political or social narratives.

They also are profoundly ambivalent. As a group, the photographs convey an aura of expectation, yet there is nothing in them - many were taken in the country's impoverished urban shantytowns - that suggests things will get better soon.

The people we meet in these brightly lit, yet destitute settings still seem poised between darkness and light, past and present, despair and hope. Their faces and expressions are dimmed by the omnipresent shadows through which they move and into which they occasionally seem to merge.

West presents us with a grand vision of a country and people struggling to throw off the burden of a tragic and violent history. That this struggle has been met with only partial success is suggested by the fact that his subjects never quite reveal themselves as individuals; they are youths, elders, laborers and other generic types, but their personalities and characters remain hidden.

Under apartheid, the camera was an instrument of oppression; the photo identification affixed to black people's passbooks was a powerful means of social control. That history also is visible in West's photographs; the people in his pictures seem to instinctively turn away from the camera, as if to avoid yet another hostile agency.

West's metaphor of shadows helps explain their mistrust, yet I can't say that it is an entirely satisfying substitute for the individual personalities that remain unexamined. Black South Africans have been invisible for so long that I want to know, insofar as a picture can tell such things, who they truly are - not as symbols or representatives of a social condition but as living, breathing human beings.

Despite their striking compositions and gorgeous color, West's pictures have a peculiar emotional remoteness I wish he and his subjects had tried harder to overcome.

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