Travel exhibit shows life from a panoramic view

Arts: Museums/Literature

September 30, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

For years, Baltimore photographer Neil Meyerhoff has regularly visited Latin America and Asia to produce extensive travelogues of such countries as Cuba and Japan. Now a new exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery showcases his latest pictures from Laos and Mexico.

Meyerhoff uses a miniature 35 mm panoramic camera, the Hasselblad XPan, to create eye-popping wide-angle images of colorful street scenes and odd incidents from the everyday lives of people whose experience, culture and history are quite different from our own.

By now, he has developed such a facile technique and fine eye for color and composition that his photographs make the pictorial challenges of the extreme wide-angle format - and the pitfalls of color film - almost look easy.

Such technical virtuosity is not always an unmixed blessing, however. It also can get in the way of the more profound human realities the photographer is attempting to document, and one gets the feeling that many of the pictures in the new show are more surface than substance.

Travel photography always runs the risk of degenerating into mere prettiness, the kind of gee-whiz pictorialism that ends up treating its subjects - particularly when they are peoples in the developing nations - mainly as eye candy for Western viewers.

I don't think this is Meyerhoff's intention by any means, if only because his pictures suggest such genuine affection - and sympathetic understanding - for the people he photographs. The wide-angle view provided by the panoramic camera suits his broadminded, globe-trotting vision.

But there's also a danger that the formulaic conventions of a well-worn genre can overshadow the real human concerns that supposedly are the point of travel pictures.

I'd like to see Meyerhoff step outside his comfort zone in future excursions, perhaps by focusing more consistently on a single subject in the manner of earlier documentary photographers, or by exploring the narrative potential of serial imagery.

In doing so, he might find that the traditional, National Geographic-style color travelogue, however artfully done, actually underutilizes his quite considerable talent.

The companion exhibition presents Patrick Burns' abstract mural-scale acrylic paintings on paper. Both shows run through Oct. 8. The gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-539-1080.

For more art events, see page 40.

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