Art vs. exploitation among photographs

Lang's work on display at Baltimore gallery

Arts

Museums / Literature

June 09, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Michael Lang's gentle, atmospheric photographs of daily life among the hill tribes of northern and western Thailand, on view at the Baltimoregallery on Eastern Avenue, are lyrical evocations of a distant land far different from our own that nevertheless raise some of the thorniest issues confronting contemporary photography.

Among the questions they raise are: Who is entitled to photograph whom and for what purpose? When does a picture stop being an "innocent" visual record and become an instrument of "exploitation," and who is to decide the meanings of images of non-Western people taken by Western photographers?

The scathing postmodern critiques of formerly uncontested art world concepts like "masterpiece," "originality" and "the canon" have also brought into question the very modes of looking employed by artists.

Feminist theory, for example, has taken a rather dim view of such traditional forms as the nude, in which a (usually) unclothed female body is offered for the inspection and enjoyment of "the male gaze."

Feminist writers have argued persuasively that such representations are about the unequal distribution of power between the sexes, not some abstract ideal of physical "perfection."

Similarly, radical critiques of the way Western artists have portrayed so-called "primitive" peoples invariably emphasize images' functional significance in defining the "other" as one whose rights need not be respected. Historically, such visual mappings of power between colonizer and colonized were essential to justify European colonial expansion.

So it's no wonder that the long history of Western photographers in Asia also has come in for revisionist examination - along with the very concept of an "Orient" itself, which is now seen not simply or even primarily as a geographical description but rather as a European construct fraught with its own political and ideological baggage.

Lang came of age in Baltimore in the 1950s and suffered from polio as a child. He was given his first camera when he was a teenager, perhaps with the hope it might spur him to explore beyond the world of his disability.

Within a few years he produced a significant body of work documenting Baltimore's working-class youth culture as he observed it in the city's pool halls - a culture, incidentally, to which he did not himself belong and from which he was actually excluded by his physical handicap. In his pool hall pictures, Lang was always the outsider looking in.

Lang eventually became a medical researcher, but years later he reprinted and exhibited the pool hall pictures of his youth to considerable critical acclaim.

The experience encouraged him to take up his camera seriously again, though this time his subjects were the hill tribes of Southeast Asia, whom he first encountered while traveling through the region in 2002. His most recent pictures are touching documents of several days spent among these remote rural people who subsist without electricity or indoor plumbing like their ancestors did 200 years ago.

Now the question arises: Are these photographs blatantly exploitative representations of Western hegemony? Or are they intensely personal responses to a universal human condition? The hill tribes have been marginalized by history and chance - much as Lang was marginalized by his childhood disease.

As a Westerner, Lang is surely an outsider to the society he documents. But that world is itself outside the modern world of globalization and giant, transnational institutions - which nevertheless make their impact felt on the villagers.

The ethical implications of one outsider observing another - or more precisely, one kind of outsider looking at another - give rise to exquisitely self-referential ironies that overall threaten to reduce the entire postmodernist revisionist project to idle parlor chatter.

But decide for yourself.

The show opens tomorrow and runs through July 1. The gallery is at 4519 Eastern Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and by appointment. Call 410-276-7966.

For more art events, see Page 33.

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