HCP Members Show: Not Up To Snuff
By April Rapier
The following is a review of the 1984 Annual Members' Exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography. Portfolios included in the exhibition were by David Cornue, Laura Derrick, Jim Elmore, Gary Faye, Hill Frazier, Paula Goldman, Paul Hester, Muffy McLanahan. Julia Milazzo, Dan Rice, Becky Pass, and Beth Schlanger. *
* Also in the show were miscellaneous prints by Martha Armstrong, Leslie Baldwin, Julie Edwards, Ellen Goldberg, Phillip Holland, Charlotte Land, Sam McColloch, Margaret Moore, Debra Rueb, Charles Sage, Barth Schorre, Jim Tiebout, Marcos Urdaneta. ond Danette Wilson.
A review of the 1984 HCP Members' Exhibition is, in a manner of speaking, incestuous; the exhibitors are acquaintances and friends, associates in the alliance that makes HCP an astounding success in its third year It is an uneasy task under the best of circumstances, and it gives me no pleasure to admit, after much consideration and discussion, that the overall tone of the show is to be found lacking.
The exhibition is dominated by student-caliber work. There are many under examined and over-executed ideas, as well as the forcing of an undeveloped vision into premature conclusion. This show is not without its marvelous images, but several unpleasant trends seem to be emerging that require note. There is a lot of travelog imagery, de rigeur picture-taking that feels forced, the result of a determination to take advantage of each and every photo-opportunity. There is no enigma to it. Some of these documents are simply treated too well, given too much importance. They are born of a motivation that is difficult to take seriously One has the sense that homage to well-tested ideas is being paid without proper credit.
The other disturbing trend that I noticed was that the intention of some sequential images was mystifying, their statements inconclusive. A discussion with the artist with regard to origins might be fascinating and enlightening, but the images mustn't depend on an explanation for clarity. Pictures should be able to stand alone. I would also like to note the difficulty in referring to pictures without titles or enumeraton.
Although the show was generally uninspired, some of the work merits critical scrutiny. The most thought-provoking and accomplished portfolio was that of Paul Hester. That work is discussed in a separate article elsewhere in this magazine. Becky Ross has created a sense of wonder with her lovely heirloom-like pictures. This portfolio has the feel of old Brownie snapshots sharp centers with halted, fuzzy edges, thus highlighting the mainstay of the image. The effect is that of paring down notions and conclusions, settling in on the idea that the act of being photographed is a very serious event, resulting in treasures to be discovered and rediscovered years later.
These pictures stem from the uncommon sensibility that images aren't haphazard, brief moments in passing. There is reverence, referential to both past and future. It is the curious omission of the present that most intrigues, Ross has also attained a coveted state of anonymity; because any trace of her presence is wholly absent from the images, we have the rare treat of watching the subject posing, as if in front of a mirror, enjoying the fantasy before the photographer actually arrives. No mugging for the camera here, caused by its intimidating status: there is sheer pleasure to be found, a seductive feeling of warmth, with happy endings in mind.
Muffy McLanahan, in devising a playful approach to scale and dimension, has created some excellent assemblages from lifeless relics, most notably "Steps at the Achilleion," "Achilles Wounded by Herte." and "Greek Graffiti," Classic subject matter tends to overpower classic treatment, yet McLanahan personalizes the images in a way that frees the subjects from the burden of their pasts. Beth Schlanger's Puye Cliff Dwelling series is based on a successful concept, yet suffers greatly from an oppressive printing technique. These dwellings, beautifully limned by a credible sensibility, have been obscured by heavy-handedness.
Paula Goldman's “Waiting for Cancer" portrait series is the work I find most enigmatic. The pictures simultaneously attract and repel. Her aims elude the viewer, I detect an evasiveness in the series as a whole, yet find some individual pictures to be enchanting. Perhaps it is the title, which plays on profound emotions, that leads us to expect more impact than is delivered. The awkwardness is that nothing gels — the anxieties drawn upon continue to float around the imagery, so that the relationship between title and posture is inconclusive. The most haunting pictures contain people surrounded by neutral, seemingly disparate objects and props. These are elements of security and familiarity. We wonder how they will transform, and if that, too is inevitable (assuming that cancer is). This series requires considerable contemplation.
Although David Cornue's subject matter is noble and lovely. I take issue with the relatively small (4x5-inch) image size he has chosen: it is difficult to justify forcing the vastness of these landscapes into such confined quarters. So much of the delicate light and tonality is obscured. These pictures demand more surface space for the photographer's intention to be fully appreciated.
Jim Elmore's pictures taken at the English seaside are of a documentary nature, and it is dear that he is least at home and most successful when he indulges m the risk of participation. As he closes in on the things being photographed, his stance is more clearly stated, his vision defined. Reliance on the wide angle, quick swing-through leaves us with a random, empty impression. This circular gesture doesn't have the triumph of the images that surround him. His social commentary is far more acerbic as well: when not distanced, we really feel what some people might be willing to put up with for a little sun. His economizing of spatial plane (less is far more here) gives us a better sense of the crowding he seems to be so interested in.
Jim Tiebout’s single, hand-tinted image is so frail and enticing and quite frustrating to see alone. It is part of a series; we would doubtless benefit from its exhibition in entirety.
Beth Israel Goldberg's picture entitled "Simla Indian Himalayas" is a refreshingly simple and unpretentious bit of secret smuggling. It imparts the feeling of seeing sacred things not meant for any but the holiest eyes. Therein lies the difference between tourist and traveler. Similarly, Barth Schorre's "Cemetery Sequence #I0" is the definitive picture in a rash of cemetery invasions. His is not an overly reverent grave robbery; he points up the eccentricities with which people decorate the graves of their loved ones. He doesn't pass judgment, and this gives one the tender chuckle of recognition.
Phillip Holland’s painterly, evocative "Frenchies Three" (it is unfortunate that he chose such a glib, distracting title) is a wonderful image with an understated punchline. The colors are rich; we are in no danger of doubting its veracity. The sum of elements in this image confirms our confidence in the integrity of the photograph. We take with us an impression of this mysterious image composed of mundane elements, quite satisfied.
The consensus seems to be that the members' exhibition is a sacred concept, and I agree for the most part. There are a number of theories as to why participation was low this year, but the most significant one is the coinciding of fellowship award appointments — deadlines were nearly simultaneous. That the fellowship review received more portfolios than the members' exhibition is sad commentary indeed If lack of interest continues to weaken the concept, amendments or incentives need to be initiated in order to encourage a more general participation and enthusiasm, without which a dangerous precedent is perpetuated. The selection process itself is a democratic one, with members voting to rate the top portfolios and single images. Members may vote whether or not they submit pictures: the number of members who voted was very low as well. Perhaps if members really want this to be a serious exhibition some consideration should be given to another method of choosing the work.