Michael Snow – Disrupting the Suspension of Disbelief, Part I


Part 1: Simultaneous compression.

When we pick up a camera and frame a composition in the viewfinder, we do so with a number of key assumptions about what happens when we press the shutter button and capture an exposure. A skilled photographer manipulates the exposure, lighting, and point of view to address the fact that the three-dimensional reality in front of them is being translated on to a two-dimensional plane. There are many factors wrapped up into that simple action and when we look at the results, whether it is on the miniature LCD display panel on the back of the camera or as a finely crafted print hanging on the wall in the museum, we suspend our disbelief about the reality of that image. The Michael Snow Photo-Centric exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a retrospective collection of work that examines the structure of the photographic medium and what we assume to be true about it. It is an exhibit that every photographer should see, because it artfully and cleverly disassembles the medium in a provocative manner that inspires reflection on contemporary photographic practice.



Snow, Michael, “Crouch, Leap, Land”, 1970
Gelatin silver prints mounted in perspex suspended from ceiling, frontal view

One of Michael Snow’s strategies is to physically take the viewer through the act of the creation of the photograph by forcing them to literally adopt the point of view taken by the photographer. In “Crouch, Leap, Land” it appears that what is on view is a minimalist sculpture consisting of three thin black rectangles suspended from the ceiling, which is the case, except that each rectangle is actually a large transparency of a model in three states of movement: crouching, leaping and landing as shot from below.



Snow, Michael, “Crouch, Leap, Land”, 1970
Gelatin silver prints mounted in perspex suspended from ceiling, view from below

To see the images completely the viewer has to lie on their back like the photographer who made the images, or at least crouch low as did the depicted model. Some viewers may be shocked to find themselves going from first experiencing a rather straightforward presentation of three black slabs to looking up the underside of a female model. The only way these photographs could have been made would have been with the model standing on a transparent stage, with the photographer positioned below.

There are a multitude of components to this work that are uniquely photographic. The most obvious is that of point of view (POV) – cameras are easily raised, lowered, tilted or otherwise placed in unique vantage points that would be difficult to replicate with other media. Beginning photography students are often told to vary their POV and explore the subject from many angles, because that factor can compress the presentation of spatial dimension, expand it or simply make it more interesting. An on-camera flash has clearly been used to freeze the figure in motion – another unique photographic attribute. But Snow goes another layer deeper into the meaning of the medium by getting the image off the wall in a not-so-subtle effort to force the viewer into viewing the scene as the camera viewed it. In addition, the optical limitations of the lens emphasizes just the surface of the glass that the model is standing on, as does the lighting of the model from below, so the effect resembles that of a three dimensional object that has been placed on a copier. The viewer sees a great amount of detail in the feet, but this detail diminishes in the distance. Snow’s approach to making the image seems reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential studies of human movement, such as “Untitled (Woman lying down)”, except that he offers the viewer an unexpected viewpoint that seems like it could be a tongue-in-cheek reference.

Muybridge, Eadweard, Animal Locomotion, Plate 257 (Woman Lying Down and Getting Up), 1887 is 9.75 x 12 inches (24.8 x 30.5 cm)

This work also illustrates the compression of 3D space to a two dimensional plane, which occurs each time an exposure is made. By using the glass as the physical support for the model, Snow has created a surface within the photographic dimension that presses up against the reality of spatial dimensions. For example, the model’s feet flatten out on the glass – the viewer sees this in  great detail – and the lighting and focus seem to force the rest of the model’s body to collapse onto the picture plane. This idea of photography carving out slabs of space and compressing it into two-dimensions is a common theme in Snow’s work and is even more dramatically applied in “Press”.


Snow, Michael, “Press”, 1969
16 gelatin silver prints, resin, plexiglass, 72 x 72 x 10inches


Snow, Michael, Detail of “Press”, 1969

The analogy is further reinforced in the presentation of the images, since Snow took the 16 prints and used thick polyester resin as backing to sandwich them between two large sheets of plexiglass, again using clamps to reveal the mechanics of the image creation process.

The use of the clamps are a clear reference to the mechanical nature of the photographic process, which is dependent on a rather simple machine that holds the light sensitive media inside a dark box with a small frame that can be opened and closed to let in the light. The “C” clamps likewise create an image by “capturing” some objects and applying enough pressure to  flatten them into an image within a rectangle. The look of these images is also reminiscent of a technique that goes back to the earliest photographs created by Fox Talbot…

William Henry Fox Talbot Flowers, Leaves, and Stem c. 1838

….when he sandwiched a plant in between a sheet of light sensitized paper and glass, essentially recording a very detailed shadow of the specimen. This practice is still used creatively today by many photographers to create “lensless” images called photograms.

As Vlas (2014) states in her introduction to the exhibit, “There is a sense of playfulness in Snow’s protracted gesture of literalizing an intangible process, and his visible reflection behind the camera openly declares the artist’s participation – not just as a signature, but also as an invitation to the viewer to indulge in his visual pun” (p. 10). For his part, Snow declares that his intent was to “two-dimensionalize” the objects (Vlas, 2014, p. 54) and he succeeded in doing so in more ways than one.

When we look at photographs whether it is in print, website, or in a frame, we suspend disbelief in the sense that we accept that the spatial reality as presented by the photograph represents the real – we are willing to believe that we are looking at a landscape and accept the validity of the image. Yet the photographic process does painfully “two-dimensionalize” space and important information (visual data) is lost in that translation. Perspective, focus, shadow, depth, and detail are all components that are inevitably changed and can be selectively used or hidden based on the photographer’s skill and will. We should keep this factor in mind as we create and interpret photographs.

© Douglas Barkey, 2014

Next upcoming post: Part II – Sequence and Time


Vlas, Adelina. (2014). Michael Snow Photo-Centric. In P. M. o. Art (Ed.), (pp. 60). Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art Publishing Department.

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VanGogh – I want to have you on my phone!


Today I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the photography exhibit by Michael Snow, which I will review soon. Afterwards I sat down in front of van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers, but the funny thing was that everyone seemed to be more interested in getting a photograph of the painting on their smart phone or having a quick portrait taken of themselves next to it. Nobody looked, and I mean really looked, at the painting itself. It’s value as a commodity and celebrity status seem to have overtaken it’s life as a remarkable painting…

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2014 Sony World Photography Awards – shortlist reviews

2014 Sony World Photography Awards

There were over 140,000 entries to the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards, so it is a comprehensive world survey of what is going on in photography today and close to a miracle to make the shortlist for the competition! I’ve selected a variety of the shortlisted winners from the professional competition whose work is exceptional for review and analysis.

Hao Li, “Duplicate Mechanism” series. © Hao Li 2014

Hao Li’s “Duplicate Mechanism” series uses the multiple exposure capability of digital cameras to create layer on layer of slight momentary and location deviations. The spaces where the photographs are made are common public sites and the result is a unique portrait of frenzied contemporary life.


© Hao Li_Taiwan_Finalist_Conceptual_Professional Competition 2014 Sony World Photography Awards

Above we are presented a vision of  railways and trains passing from above with the camera just slightly moved between exposures and the subject itself is constantly moving. These images are of spatial surfaces layered as moments in time – each separated by fractions of a second or fractions of a viewpoint difference. In a previous exhibit at TIVAC 2013 the photographer described these images as being about the repetition of daily urban life, with each day being just slightly – a fraction – different than the previous day.

He also changes up the scale, so we are provided with the grand scale of trainway and a skyscraper…

Hao Li

© Hao Li_Taiwan_Finalist_Conceptual_Professional Competition 2014 Sony World Photography Awards

contrasted with a child’s viewpoint at a supermarket….


© Hao Li_Taiwan_Finalist_Conceptual_Professional Competition 2014 Sony World Photography Awards

These images are distressing, vibrating captures of what it can feel like to be bombarded with many different sources of visual stimuli. They simulate what a consumer might feel as they stroll down a supermarket aisle, but the the images also create a fascinating pattern of intersecting delicate lines and rectangles overlapped with amorphous human forms. The humans seem like a footnote in the frenetic environment they helped create.

Glenna Gordon

Bride Temitope Caulker poses with her bridesmaids, who in typical Nigerian fashion, wear outfits that match the decor of the wedding hall. © Glenna Gordon 2014 Sony World Photography Awards

Wedding ceremonies are certainly a window into a culture’s values and customs and Glenna Gordon’s entry series “Nigeria Ever After” provides a unique insight into that country’s wedding traditions framed in contemporary practices and technology. Gordon (2014) says the the images are “about what it costs to get married in Nigeria: what money can and can’t buy and the quiet moments during frenzied ceremony.”

An opulent wedding for nearly a thousand guests was held at the banquet hall of a private housing estate in Lagos, Nigeria. Guests wear matching outfits and hats chosen by the bride's family. © Glenna Gordon, 2014

An opulent wedding for nearly a thousand guests was held at the banquet hall of a private housing estate in Lagos, Nigeria. Guests wear matching outfits and hats chosen by the bride’s family. © Glenna Gordon, 2014

Each family puts on as lavish a ceremony as possible, since the wedding itself is an indication of status (Gordon, 2014).

A bridesmaid collects money tossed at the couple as the dance.

A bridesmaid collects money tossed at the couple as the dance. © Glenna Gordon, 2014

In addition to the traditions of the groom and groomsmen prostrating themselves on the ground in front of the bride’s parent, guests will “spray” the couple with cash as they dance through the night. Bridesmaids collect the cash quickly. Gordon’s images provided a behind-the-scenes view of a Nigerian wedding in which we see the guests and the couple interacting rather than posing. Consequently her work takes a stronger  documentary direction, because her images are a study of the ceremony, rather than a series of images meant to be consumed by the couple. For example, if we compare her work with a Nigerian commercial wedding  photographer, such as Akara Ogheneworo


…we can see how this polished and highly controlled depiction of the bridal couple is a world apart from Gordon’s rather poignant portrait of the bride and groom greeting guests…

Glenna Gordon, Bride and Groom, 2013

Glenna Gordon, Bride and Groom, 2013

Gordon captures a moment that is as much about that slice of reality as it is about relationships between male and female or  gender roles. In this image the men are speaking – they are the featured personages discussing something of importance – while the women both look away, their thoughts elsewhere. Even though the moment is about the men, Gordon has framed the images so that the dominant presence is that of the bride – her white dress stands out and the symmetry of the background leads to her figure. Yet her expression is neither that of joy or preoccupation, but rather one of acceptance, that of playing the role that she was meant to play…and she does not seem too impressed! Gordon’s exposure and framing take what was in all likelihood a gaudily decorated affair and transforms it into a fantasy of sparkling lights and waves of lavender. It is the perfect image to match Gordon’s title for the series:  Nigeria Ever After. To see more photographs by Glenna Gordon, visit her website at http://www.glennagordon.com/

Demilitarized Zone

The Golan heights seperates between Israel and Syria, this peacefull landscape has become like a monument for war and conflict with demolished houses, military bases and mindfields. © Roei Greenberg

The landscape tells a story. As photographers sometimes we choose to ignore the story and focus on the surface  – choosing to only see the spectacle of “sublime nature“, but Roei Greenberg combines the two perspectives by creating images that use the accepted structure of the landscape photograph to portray the land as a witness to conflict. For example, the image of the Golan Heights, uses a conventional landscape photography technique – the tension between the visual pull of the foreground and background – to feature a pristine meadow broken by the rusted barbed wire fence posts. In the background, hazily, we can see the Syrian side of the land. Despite being an area of intense conflict in the past, this is a tranquil scene in which the barbed wire lazily loops across the flowered meadow and the Star of David hangs precariously off a reinforced post. The image seems to make the past irrelevant…the weeds have physically and metaphorically overgrown this political symbol.

A trail at Ein zeitim (olive spring) national park, the name is an arab name taken from the arab village that was located near by, the only remains are the bricks that had been put together to form this trail in the woods. © Roei Greenberg

A trail at Ein zeitim (olive spring) national park, the name is an arab name taken from the arab village that was located near by, the only remains are the bricks that had been put together to form this trail in the woods. © Roei Greenberg

In “Trail at Ein Zetim”, an overgrown trail is all the is left of the Arab village that once occupied the land. Greenberg’s approach is to contrast the convention of landscape – to present us with otherwise unremarkable images that might be postcards – with simple statements of fact that describe a partial history of the land. He combines the actual state of the land with a history that might extend 50 years back in time. This brings up an uncomfortable fact for photographers seeking to image a “pristine nature”, since the reality is that all of nature is in a constant state of transformation, it is not on the human timetable.


Birya Forest is now an Israeli national park in the north of Israel. Prior to 1948 this area was populated by Palestinian villages. © Roei Greenberg

I understand that the landscape as a medium needs to be treated carefully and with respect. I believe that it is filled and shaped by ideology. I seek to capture photographs that have double meanings where objects are symbols and places always have a history that charge them with more than the eye can see. (Greenberg, 2014)

Greenberg’s contextualization of the landscape with words creates a powerful viewpoint that gives the images another dimension that is political and human. They tell the story of the land, and although they are not visible in any of his images, the main protagonists in the story are the humans whose ideology, religion, and political values have had a transformative impact. To see more work by Roei Greenberg, visit his website at http://www.roeigreenbergphotography.com/


Gordon, Glenna. (2014). Nigeria Ever After.   Retrieved 2/15/2014, 2014, from http://www.glennagordon.com/#/nigeria-ever-after

Greenberg, Roei. (2014). Biography. Roei Greenberg Photography.  Retrieved 2/15/2014, 2014, from http://www.roeigreenbergphotography.com/

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Kenneth Josephson, Robert Koch Gallery

Kenneth Josephson exhibit

Here’s a short synopsis by one of our photography professors on Kenneth Josephson’s conceptual photographs that everyone will enjoy!

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From 40 plates to 6 billion files – the scale of photography in a digital age

Photograph, John Dilwyn Llewelyn,

John Dillwyn Llewelyn, “St. Catherine’s Island, Tenby”, 1854

In November, 2011, I wrote a short piece on Managing the Image – Sorting through the Catalog that explored some of the key differences for prolific digital photographers between managing an image archive of digital photographs and silver-based negatives. I was reminded of that essay when I read the New York Times article on how the “rediscovered”  photographs of  John Dillwin Llewelyn, inspired “The Photographer of Penllergare: A Life of John Dillwyn Llewelyn 1810-1882” (Goldberg, 2014). Forty ancient daguerreotypes  unearthed in 1973 from a dusty box found in a garage in Wales, led Noel Chanan to research the life and photographs of Llewelyn, who turns out to have been married to the sister of Henry Fox Talbot, one of the co-inventors of photography, and who became a well-known photographer in his own right (Chanan, 2013). The book is a remarkable time capsule of the life of an elite family living in the 1800’s and is culled from thousands of photographs that Llewelyn made of family life, travels, and of nature.

John Dillwyn Llewelyn, “The Birch Bark Canoe”, 1856

There were two aspects of this article and book that struck me:  the fragility of the digital image and the mind-boggling quantity of digital images that exist today and that grow exponentially with each capture made by  millions of people across the globe.

Independent research indicates that at Fickr alone, 3.57 billion photographs had been uploaded by December, 2013 (Fickr claimed 6 billion had been uploaded by 2011), but this is only one of many locations where individuals publish their digital photographs (Michel, 2014). And these are only the published images, which we could reasonably assume are people’s best images from what is stored on their hard drive. Metadata would be the only way to make sense of this scale of images. Llewelyn was a prolific photographer who created thousands of images using the wet collodion process, which is just a little more labor intensive than connecting the cable from your camera to computer and clicking “Import”.

With wet collodion camera and dark tent, c 1854

Yet, even his images, made by a recognized photographer during the early days of photography when the total number of photographers on the planet numbered in the thousands, still dropped out of sight relatively quickly.

Llewelyn’s photographs take on meaning, because they survived time and are drawn from a fewer number to begin with. They are each well-composed and technically proficient for the day, especially given the challenges of the collodion process, but often their aesthetic content is not so much different than the family snapshots preserved on Iphones and Flickr worldwide.

John Dillwyn Llewelyn, “Young Lions Age 3 Weeks”, 1854

In the 1850’s photography was reserved for the aristocratic class, as it took a healthy investment of time and material to create a photograph (Goldberg 2014). In “Young Lions Age 3 Weeks” we see a young boy with some rather exotic pets, but other than this distinction, this image and others are indistinguishable from millions of images captured  today by adoring parents. So, a few hundred years down the road and trillions of images later, how will our descendants pick out the significant images from our time? Will the images even survive or will the opposite happen –  where the “cloud” we share is eternally populated with the digital likenesses of one indistinguishable individual after another? Will the significant and meaningful images of our time become camouflaged inside the massive output of billions of image files?

Photographs today exist in two basic forms:  the print and the digital file. There are far fewer prints than files, since it costs time and money to transfer a digital image to paper, whereas the cost of storing thousands of family images in digital format is free or almost free. The growing pervasiveness of tablets and smartphones is changing the way we share our images and making it easier and more convenient to avoid printing, and instead, hand over a piece of luminescent digital glass to share. Given the past twenty years of technological change in which recording formats, devices, and media have all come and gone many times, it might be that the hard drive or Ipad discovered in someone’s future garage will not be worth much more than the raw materials they contain. For a digital photograph to survive it will have to be printed archivally or it’s digital file upgraded and transferred by a caretaker.

At the end of her article, Goldberg (2014) asks “A century from now, will someone be able to retrieve tens of thousands of tweets, texts and emails from communication companies and obsolete platforms (and, who knows, even the National Security Agency) to fashion so panoramic a tale?”  For the 2014 Sony World Photography contest, several hundred finalists where selected from over 140,000 entries. Is it possible to even make valid distinctions about the value of individual images in relation to each other at this scale?  It seems that heavy curation lies in our future and in our future perception of our history.

Comments are welcome.

© Douglas Barkey




Chanan, Noel. (2013). The Photographer of Penllergare: A Life of John Dillwyn Llewelyn 1810-1882. London: Impress.

Goldberg, Vick. (2014). From a forgotten box, a ray of light; Daguerreotypes spur book on John Dillwyn Llewelyn, The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/arts/design/daguerreotypes-spur-book-on-john-dillwyn-llewelyn.html?ref=arts

Michel, Franck. (2013). How many photos are uploaded to Fickr every day, month, year. 2014, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/franckmichel/6855169886/


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Larry Cook and Annette Isham at The Hamiltonian Gallery, Washington D.C.

Larry Cook, “Regalia 2”, Archival ink jet print, 40 x 30 in, 2014

Annette Isham, from Woman and Landscape series

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.

Larry Cook, 2013

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.

Larry Cook, 2013

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.

Larry Cook, 2013

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.

Video Installation, Annette Isham, 2013

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.

Annette Isham, 2013

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.

Annette Isham, 2013

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 Hamiltonian Gallery, 2014

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
e: info@hamiltonianartists.org


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

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Louis Draper: Retrospective at Candela Books + Gallery

Louis Draper, Hughie Lee Smith, Gelatin Silver Print, 6.5 x 9

The Louis Draper retrospective at Candela Books + Gallery is a quiet and persistent telling of  another side to mid-20th century life in the United States that stands in stark contrast to the  clean-cut and oversimplified suburban lifestyle that is often depicted to represent this era. Draper’s sensitive and probing portraits provide a distinctive view into the the reality of African American culture and people living in a parallel universe to nuclear standoffs and clean-shaven “Mad Men” advertising executives shaping a culture of brand consumption.

Louis Draper, Woman with earring, Gelatin Silver Print

Louis Draper, Billy, Gelatin Silver Print

John Edwin Mason has already written a detailed account and review of Louis Draper’s life and work at the NY Time Lens Blog, so this review is is a more narrow analysis of Draper’s use of design, composition and light to express the dignity of his subject and a nuanced view of the life and times of the 1950’s and 60’s in the U.S.

Draper’s portraits are all tightly framed, but some present the person, whether child or adult, as a counterpoint to a complex abstraction of graffiti textured walls and doorways.

Louis Draper, Boy with lace curtain, Gelatin Silver Print

Louis Draper, Boy with paint splatter, Gelatin Silver Print

In “Boy with lace curtain” and “Boy with paint splatter” Draper builds the frame around a dynamic arrangement of fragmented architectural forms and gritty textures that set the context for the portrait of the child. While occupying a very small portion of the frame, the child’s face and expression, whether resolute or disarming, dominate the image composition; Draper creates a conversation between foreground and background, the present and the past, a life and it’s conditional existence. In both cases the young boys break out of the visual pattern yet are intricately woven into the fabric of the composition and visual dynamic of their environment. This a recurring theme and compositional approach that Draper seems to apply even to the point of leaving the human presence indicated by just a faint shadow of a figure.

Louis Draper, Graffiti silhouette, Gelatin Silver Print

In other portraits, Draper conveys the silent dignity and fortitude of his subject with dramatic, yet soft, shadows with his subject framed in front of a simple and plain wall. In “Young man in beret” a straightforward expression is split by the face half in silhouette. Stability and the strength of character is conveyed by the width of the body filling the bottom portion of the frame and the nearly symmetrical arrangement of the elements of the composition.

Louis Draper, Young man in beret, Gelatin Silver Print

The exhibit presents a series of these profound and striking portraits through which a viewer feels like they are getting an intimate glimpse into the soul and reality of these individuals in their time and place.

Louis Draper, Mississippi Sharecroppers, 1971, Gelatin Silver Print

“Mississippi Sharecroppers” is an incredibly dynamic composition that is conceptually shocking, yet elegant in presence. It is shocking to see the date of the image combined with the depiction of manual labor that seems more appropriate to an earlier century – an extended family, including a child, toil away hoeing a seemingly infinite stretch of crops. Draper establishes the basic structure of the composition with the symmetrical rows of crops reaching into the horizon line established around 3/5ths of the frame high; a plain sky simplifies the tonal contrasts. The workers, all in light clothing, contrast with the geometrical lines of the rows and the organic shapes and textures of the plants.

Pay attention to the way your eye tracks through this image to get a sense of the sophistication of Draper’s use of space and frame. The strong and detailed foreground draws in our eye first and then the rows pull your attention to the far couple, smallest in the frame, but the gestures of the two men on the left side of the group pull our eyes back and finally over to the young man whose gaze redirects our focus to the woman in the foreground….and then our attention is pulled back through again.

Each figure is a strong vertical column rising out of the diagonal movement of the rows of crops – these are forceful representations of stability and endurance in the face of hardship. Despite the conditions documented, the content and design of this image reminds of the enduring human spirit and our connection to the land. The image is the definition of Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment” as it captures a perfect slice of time when each aspect of the photograph works seamlessly together to convey the meaning of that moment and place.

The images in this post are but a facsimile of the original gelatin silver prints on display at Candela Books + Gallery – it is well worth the visit to see the originals! As usual Candela Gallery has curated a significant exhibit of exceptional quality.

Louis Draper’s sister, Nell Draper-Winston partnered with Candela Books + Gallery for “Louis Draper: Retrospective,” Jan. 10 to Feb. 22. The first-of-its-kind exhibition is part of Race, Place and Identity,” a series of Richmond events highlighting civil rights and social justice

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