Photos present life in Thailand, Myanmar

ART

Art Column

January 28, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Michael Lang grew up in the 1950s fascinated by the cool guys with slicked-back hair and cigarettes dangling from their lips who hung out at Benny Kitt's pool hall in West Baltimore.

Lang wasn't one of them, but as a teen-ager he found a way into their world through his camera - an old Leica with a fast lens that allowed him to take moody, atmospheric, film noir-like photographs of the characters he encountered in Benny's dark, smoky interior.

The photographs went into a box and stayed there until 1995, when Lang, by then a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health, looked at them again and realized he had unwittingly captured a pungent and historically important slice of Baltimore's storied past.

He started reprinting the photographs he had taken as a 15-year-old, and in 2000, his show, A Nice Clean Room: Pool Hall Portraits from 1950s Baltimore, opened at a Washington-area gallery to admiring reviews.

Now Lang has a new exhibition at Baltimore Gallery on Eastern Avenue. But instead of the tobacco-filled haunts of his youth, this time his subjects are the people of Thailand and Burma whom he encountered photographic trip there in 2001.

Lang traveled to Bangkok, where he hired a local guide and interpreter fluent in the many dialects spoken by the rugged local tribespeople. They set off on a two-week trek north from Bangkok and across the border into Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Along the way, Lang photographed in black-and-white and color, recording markets, bars, slums, homeless people, prostitutes and trash scavengers - people who make their living sorting through and recycling the tons of garbage in Bangkok's municipal dump - with much the same fascination and innocence he had brought to Baltimore's pool halls more than four decades earlier.

He also photographed village elders, female weavers, a seance arranged to allow bereaved family members to visit with a dead relative and a Thai funeral. The show also includes landscapes, portraits and wonderfully spontaneous shots of the region's bustling street life.

Lang has an obvious gift for picture-making that seems undiminished since his earliest days with a camera. Yet the photojournalistic style of the 1950s-era illustrated magazines that he grew up with and made his own no longer seems quite so adequate to convey the reality of the lives of the people he presents here.

His photographs are well-observed but not necessarily deeply felt. I suppose the downside of a natural eye for composition and color may well be the risk of seeming merely glib; Lang's pictures are lovely to look at, but there's also a gnawing sense they don't tell us as much as they promise and also that what they do tell us we've seen before.

I suspect this may be inevitable given the fact this was Lang's first foray to Asia, and that he tried to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time. A lot of these pictures, charming as they are, skim the surface rather than probe for the deeper human meanings. Many teeter precariously on the brink of falling in cliches of pretty travelogue photography - fine, perhaps, for market scenes and colorful landscapes, but less appropriate for more serious subjects like the homeless and the country's brutally exploited sex workers.

It seems Lang himself was not quite sure what he wanted to say with this show, an ambivalence that may be reflected in his use of both black-and-white and color film. Both can encompass a wide range of moods and expressive strategies, but here the combination seems a bit haphazard and uncertain, as if the photographer were trying to be all things to all people.

I'd like to see Lang go back to Asia with a more focused subject in mind and a more disciplined approach to using his materials. This is a guy with a great natural gift of eye and hand, and he showed in his pool hall photographs that he's also got plenty of heart. It would be a pity if he didn't find a way to bring it all together in his Asian photographs as successfully as he did in the Baltimore of his youth.

Thailand Street Photography continues through Feb. 16. Baltimore Gallery is at 4519 Eastern Ave. Hours are Tues.-Fri 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment. Call 410-276-7966.

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