Photographers enlarge on Bechers' earlier works

Cameras' lenses give the mundane a beauty treatment

Art Review

January 11, 2003|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

To understand the big picture in Imperfect Innocence: The Dennis and Debra Scholl Collection, 1992-2002, the photography exhibit opening today at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum, first look at the two small, paired, black-and-white photographs taken by renowned German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Part of the Bechers' career-long devotion to documenting often derelict industrial buildings in Europe and the United States, Pithead No. 6 and 32 (1966) provides a straightforward depiction of a Welsh coal mine's buildings and equipment. On the face of it, these little documentary photos of a mine entrance seem to have little in common with some of the very large and vividly colored figurative photographs hanging nearby, but some links exist between the pitheads and those human heads.

A Miami Beach, Fla., couple whose photography collection is receiving its first public display with this exhibit, the Scholls have a strong art-historical reason for demonstrating how this German photographic couple influenced many younger photographers. Indeed, the international assortment of photography collected by the Scholls over the past decade includes its share of Americans and Germans who've mined the Bechers' basic outlook, if not their subject matter.

The Bechers present sequences of images in which you're prompted to note the similarities and differences in related building types. Many contemporary artists - not just photographers - share that interest in typology. Also, by documenting neglected relics of the Industrial Revolution, the Bechers find interest and even beauty in mundane subjects that many would dismiss as too ugly to serve as artistic subjects.

Among those sharing their concerns is American photographer Dan Graham. His color shot New Houses Behind Chain Link Fence, Jersey City, NJ (1966), depicts squat housing as seen through a chain link fence. It's such an undistinguished image that even a chirpy Realtor would be hard-pressed to say anything encouraging about this Jersey subdivision. Even the colors here seem washed out.

Getting away from bland suburban near-sameness, the German-based photographer Olafur Eliasson's The Fault Series (2001) is comprised of a Becher-evocative grid of 32 color shots depicting very narrow fissures slashing across the craggy, moss-embossed landscape of Iceland. These shots possess a bleak beauty, although those sudden openings in the ground also seem ominous. You'll look from one shot to the next much as you'd scan a series of human portraits searching for individualized features.

It'd be simplistic to push the Becher connections too far, and, besides, contemporary photography is so eclectic that it's already pushing in quite a few directions.

Hanging near the objective documentation provided by the Bechers' Welsh colliary scenes, for instance, is an untitled black-and-white 1996 photo by American Gregory Crewdson. An initial glance might have you think that this is a documentary look at a suburban street. But a second look makes clear that there's a lot of artistic stage-management involved in how the residents are grouped and certainly in how a landscape crew inexplicably is unloading sod in the middle of the street to make a street-covering carpet of grass. Everyday life has taken a surreal turn made all the more unnerving by the photographer's apparent adherence to black-and-white documentary tradition.

A number of the photographers are pursuing portraiture in which the straight-on approach is in the spirit of cool objectivity epitomized by the Bechers. But these younger photographers differ from the Bechers in that they often favor very large prints and deeply saturated colors. There's no missing a young woman's red lips in the untitled 1989 portrait by German Thomas Ruff. Despite her direct gaze, however, she gives little away. You find yourself plumbing the surface to learn more more.

Besides a fair sampling of other approaches to the medium, the exhibit includes a few artist-made videos. All in all, it's an invigorating show that should provide something of a morale boost for the Contemporary at a time of transition following former director Gary Sangster's departure last August. Interim director Leslie Shaffer says she anticipates a new director being named this spring.

Next up, she says, is an exhibit at the end of this year by British filmmaker Isaac Julian relating to a film he recently shot in Baltimore as a joint project with the Contemporary and the Walters Art Museum. Also, the Contemporary recently increased its educational programs with the creation of what it calls a "New Art Learning Center."

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