A master captures life of an avenue

Photographer forms a stirring portrait of her community

ArtReview

February 24, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the first decades of the 20th century, Andre Kertesz, Jacque-Henri Lartigue and Henri Cartier-Bresson invented what is known as "street photography," the artful snapshooting of people captured as they go about their business in public places.

Baltimore photographer Linda Day Clark is an heir to that tradition, and as her show on view at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore through the end of this month demonstrates, she is a contemporary master of the genre.

Many of the photographs in the show were taken on the streets on and around North Avenue, where the artist has lived and worked for the past 15 years.

Walking the broad avenue with her camera in the golden light of late summer afternoons, she created hundreds of photographs that form a collective portrait of her community, documenting the everyday lives of the area's mostly African-American residents with extraordinary empathy and compassion.

One picture shows a pretty little girl with a sunny expression posing with an obviously much beloved and played-with Barbie doll.

The white, blond-haired doll in the girl's brown hand invariably evokes comparison with the studies of injured black self-esteem carried out by psychologist Kenneth Clark (no relation) in the 1940s, which showed that segregation had systematically inculcated a sense of racial inferiority among black schoolchildren.

The psychologist's research helped lay the groundwork for the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision desegregating public education.

Yet in Linda Day Clark's light-filled photograph, that dark history no longer seems menacing. We are persuaded to accept her suggestion that little girls may love Barbie dolls regardless of color -- and without danger -- and that perhaps such innocence may even represent progress of a sort.

Another image from the series depicts a Muslim girl wearing a powder blue veil with gold trim near a Nation of Islam mosque on North Avenue.

The girl gazes shyly but confidently into the camera; her dress and demeanor suggest a person who understands that there are occasions for self-revelation and times to remain apart from the world for one's own protection.

Her presence in the picture is clearly a gift to the photographer.

A second group of Clark's images recounts the artist's travels in Nigeria, where she photographed the people she met with the same pictorial grace and attentiveness to the nuances of expression and body language that she brought to her Baltimore subjects.

One photograph shows a husband, wife and child who have unconsciously arranged themselves in the classical attitudes of a Renaissance painting depicting the Holy Family.

Yet Clark's scene is presented as a completely ordinary moment, without a hint of self-consciousness or artifice.

More recently, Clark has begun photographing the women of Gee's Bend, Ala., an isolated African-American community 60 miles southwest of Montgomery renowned for its generations-old quilting traditions.

The brilliant textiles created by the women of Gee's Bend are among the most beautiful works of art created in America (they are the subject of a stunning exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art through May 17).

Clark's portraits, however, focus more on the dignity and deep religious faith of her subjects, which have sustained them through decade's of crushing poverty and cruel injustice. Her portrait of quiltmaker Arlonzia Pettway transcends its documentary purpose and becomes a glorious celebration of pure line, color and form.

This is a marvelous exhibition that reveals the vision of an artist at the height of her powers. Visitors who make the trip to Maryland's Eastern Shore won't be disappointed.

The gallery is in the Arts and Technologies Center on the UMES campus near Salisbury. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Information: 410-651-6490 or www.umes.edu/mosely.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.