Baltimore - in black and white

Exhibit honors photographer, just in time for arts festival


July 23, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

If the exhibition of black-and-white photography that opened at Maryland Art Place last weekend is any indication of what we can expect from this weekend's Artscape festival as a whole, then it's going to be tremendous.

The MAP exhibition, titled simply "Artscape - Black and White," brings together 45 works by 19 area artists who continue to work in this time-honored medium. The show, curated by Baltimore photographer Carl Clark, is an homage not only to the unique qualities of black-and-white imagery but also to the rich visual heritage of Baltimore and the men and women who have documented it.

Any large group show like this invariably works only when certain conditions are met. One, no matter how different the photographers' approaches and subject matter, they have to be united by a coherent theme. And two, once all the pictures are up on the wall, they've got to be able to talk to each other, in visual terms, so that the whole comes off not as a static installation but rather as a lively conversation among compatible artistic personalities.

This show works beautifully on both counts. The pictures Clark has selected don't just talk to each other, they positively sing.

Clark has dedicated the show to the late Joseph Kohl, a Baltimore native and Maryland Institute graduate who for many years photographed for the Baltimore Business Journal and the alternative press as well as for corporate clients. Kohl's career was tragically cut short earlier this year when, at the age of 45, he died after a protracted battle with leukemia. He left behind a large and varied body of work, portions of which will enter the collections of the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore Museum of Art and other institutions.

Kohl's personal work, represented by eight photographs in the current show, was a voluptuous and unrestrained embrace of Baltimore's quirky counterculture of the 1980s and '90s (alas, the artist's equally kinky filing system makes it impossible to precisely date his pictures). He was drawn not only to the most ordinary scenes, which he transfigured through his uniquely poetic vision, but also to the unusual, the weird, the transgressive and the outright perverse; yet he always portrayed his subjects with good humor and an unconditional acceptance of their humanity.

For example, Kohl's undated photograph of a couple on prom night shows a young man and woman locked in an embrace on the dance floor, her head on his shoulder, hands gently caressing the back of his neck. It's a photograph of adolescent love and sexual longing so direct and uncompromising in its sheer physical descriptiveness that it is almost shocking. Yet it remains completely true to what is, after all, a relatively commonplace rite of passage; most of us have been there, too, at one time or another.

Or take Kohl's untitled portrait of a young woman, photographed at the near limit of his lens' ability to focus, so that her head emerges from the picture's dark background like an overripe fruit. She wears a ring in her nose and theatrical eye makeup that lend the picture an air of sexual ambiguity as well as a touching vulnerability (Kohl often photographed transvestites on North Calvert Street as well as strippers on The Block).

What comes through in all of this work is a deep regard for people who by choice or destiny have taken the road less traveled, individuals who are, in the memorable phrase of novelist Ralph Ellison, invisible simply because people refuse to see them. Kohl saw them and, on the evidence of his pictures, loved them. As Clark notes in an introductory wall text, "these people, who needed the most, had Joe."

Kohl's empathetic art finds echoes in many of the artists in the show. If Kohl was Baltimore's Nan Goldin, chronicling the city's artistic underbelly, Amos Badertscher is certainly its Robert Mapplethorpe. Badertscher's unapologetically homoerotic nudes, a couple of which are included in this show, were published a few years ago as Baltimore Portraits, a gritty, sexually graphic volume that has since become something of a local underground classic.

Quite a different approach to locality forms the basis of Michela Caudill's sensitive portraits of people and places. Caudill, a documentary photographer who has taught at MICA and at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center, shares Kohl's dramatic use of light and dark, but her pictures of mothers and children and of local architectural gems have a transparency and spaciousness that almost suggest innocence. Veteran news photographers Jim Burger and Christopher Hartlove weigh in with photojournalistic tours de force - Burger with an amazing picture of a blazing rowhouse from his series on Baltimore firefighters, Hartlove with a couple of emotionally wrenching images from an essay exploring the pervasiveness of violence in American society.

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