Although “Woman and Landscape” and “From an Eighth to a Key” occupy the same exhibit space at The Hamiltonian Gallery, each artist addresses different themes with distinct approaches and media – these are separate exhibits installed apart in the same space. Nevertheless, the exhibits both address cultural perceptions and assumptions by wrapping the human figure in places and a wardrobe that undermine, or at least, question assumptions about identity.
Larry Cook presents a series of portraits of men and alters the context in which we might expect to see the archetype that each group of males represents: several individual twenty-something African-American men are presented garbed in doctoral regalia, while in an adjacent group of individual portraits we are shown white men, decidedly over-40, standing in a variety of poses in front of “urban party” backgrounds (Jirón-Murphy, 2014). All the photographs are 30 x 40 inch archival inkjet prints; the African-American men are depicted from just below the waist and against a white background, while the white men stand full figure in front of vibrant DIY murals you might find at start-up dance clubs. Both sets of men are lit with two equidistant lights, but the white men are lit from underneath so that their shadow looms behind them and the doctoral graduates are lit at eye-level – a background light flares out any shadows from appearing on the white background.
Cook’s choice of regalia to represent the unexpected is borne out by the research. The 2009-10 U.S. Department of Education statistics on race / ethnicity segments of doctorates achieved indicates that 7.4% of doctoral degrees were awarded to the black population compared to 74.3% awarded to the white population; of the 7.4% earned doctorates, only 35% went to African-American men . That statistic is a pretty dramatic indictment of the ability of our higher education system to reach out to, and support, other races / ethnicities beyond the white majority. There are still over 3,500 African-American men that receive a doctorate every year, so do Cook’s portraits really bring the photographic language to bear on issues of race, identity, and education? Has this grouping of switched context portraits questioned our expectations of each archetype?
Cook departs from a simple premise – lets see what happens to perceptions of racial identity if we switch place and wardrobe. Doctoral regalia indicates achievement – expertise and the contribution to knowledge. The murals represent the party scene – urban, late night, local…perhaps even a little seedy…probably not the place you would find any of the archetypal white men that modeled for the images. So, the images are easy to “get” in one sense, we see the unexpected and it makes us ponder the differences between black and white cultural identity. But Cook throws in some other variables that seems to undermine his intent.
Neither set of portraits are lit in a manner that would reinforce the concept of the series and in the case of the white men, who are lit in an unflattering manner from below, there seems to be a clear intent by the photographer to disparage their physical presence. A more appropriate lighting approach might have been something more suited to the aesthetics of that place – the place where they were asked to pose. Why not use dance lighting and gels as light sources, perhaps balanced with the harshness of an on-camera flash that is so typical of photographs made in this environment? The men in regalia are not lit with a much better technique, but wouldn’t a 4-light executive portrait set-up be more in keeping with the purpose and artifice of these portraits? It seems to me that in both cases the photographer has not gone far enough with using the vocabulary of lighting to fully express his concept.
Then there is the issue of the pose. Many of the models from both races seem to be in on the secret. The African-American men look like they are wearing a costume, they pose in a pietistic manner, hands clasped and taking themselves ever so seriously – playing the graduate. The white men vary in pose, one looking down his nose at the camera while straightening his tie – playing the suit identity to the hilt.
An interesting little corollary in this photographic project is how each actor seems to play the role that they think the photographer wants them to play. This is an interesting twist on Roland Barthes’ take on portraiture, who wrote “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art” (Barthes, 1981). The last two attributes seem to be the ones most put into practice in this series, but it seems like the validity of addressing how achievement and racial identity intersect could be treated with more depth and nuance. More information on Larry Cook’s photographs can be found at LarryCook.com.
Annette Isham’s work is a cross between performance art, video, and photographic media. The videos depict her navigating her way across wilderness landscapes meant to be otherworldly, spectacular, and surreal, but with self-imposed limitations, such as wearing stilts or 13 inch platform shoes. The videos are visually engaging and thought-provoking, but in some cases display a lack of regard for technical proficiency that is distracting to the concept. For example, the 5 video displays face a series of forgettable still images of composited landscapes printed on translucent backing and backlit – they are intended to display an idealized and sublime nature, but the beginner’s level of montage technique undermines this exactly.
The videos are much more sophisticated, and although they suffer from the same issue of awkward compositing, the impact of the woman as she travels across the screen overlaid on dramatic wilderness images akin to a Sierra Club calendar is visceral. In some ways, the structure of this performance – the self-imposed discipline of trying to walk on 13 inch platform shoes with their reference to fashion, remind me of religious pilgrimages, such as those made to the Virgen de Guadalupe where the faithful might crawl on their knees traversing a difficult terrain in a very painful manner. The woman in these videos exhibits a related struggle trying to balance her way across a green screen, which has been replaced by the wilderness scene. The best of the videos taking this green screen approach is actually the one where two women grapple and wrestle, one of them quite vulnerable in her 13 inch platforms. There is no attempt here to tie in the women to the landscape – their actions do not attempt to engage the physical nature of the background at all, so the viewer is confronted with a simpler presentation of two seemingly giant humans wrestling before a facade of natural grandeur.
In some ways, Isham’s work seems to refer to an individual bring suffering upon themselves whether for the cause of fashion or religion. Isham’s use of the wilderness is, for me, a reference to a solitary spiritual journey where artificial restraints are imposed in order to concentrate the mind and spirit. I don’t see these images as really being about landscape photography or our perceptions of the sublime in landscape, but more about human ecology.
The most effective and stark presentation is the video in which the artist is at the actual wilderness location and walks with stilts and canes from left to right across the screen and across the landscape. The presentation is effective, because the struggle is actual – the engagement with the landscape is physical, not merely aesthetic. The artifice of the other videos can be somewhat distracting, because we know that the struggle for balance is in a staged environment, but when Isham must manipulate her stilts and canes across a rocky mountainside or desert sands, we can more instinctively sense the emotional, mental, and spiritual concentration that her effort is taking. Isham’s clumsy journey across a spectacular and wild natural landscape lit by the quiet evening light creates a contradiction between our perceptions of sublime nature and the limitations of basic human capability. More information on Annette Isham’s work can be found at annettewashburneisham.com.
The exhibit is of high quality, very nicely curated and presented – definitely worth a trip to D.C. to view. For more information about our The Hamiltonian, artists and events, please contact:
Amanda Jirón-Murphy, Gallery Director
Angie Goerner, Development Director
1353 U Street NW Suite 101; Washington, DC 20009
t: 202.332.1116 | f: 202.332.0569
Barthes, Roland. (1981). Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang
Jirón-Murphy, Amanda. (2014). Exhibition >> Woman and landscape + From an eight to a key. Retrieved 2/2/2014, 2014, from http://www.hamiltoniangallery.com/exhibitions/woman-and-landscape-from-an-eighth-to-a-key/
NCES. (2012). Degrees conferred by sex and race. In N. C. f. E. Statistics (Ed.), The condition of education 2012. Fast Facts: US Department of Education.
© Douglas Barkey 2014