Lethargic Photos and Evaporative Caption

by Liz Mengel and Robert Estep

Wisconsin Summer and VCR Film Still: Photographs by Dick Blau and Lew Thomas were shown at the Graham Gallery, July 12 – August 9.
As part of the Houston Art Dealers Association’s Introductions ’86, the Graham Gallery is presenting the works of Dick Blau and Lew Thomas.

Blau is presently Chairman of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Department of Film. He was born in NYC and was raised in San Francisco. His intellectual background shows great diversity as a theater director, filmmaker, and literary critic. His work in photography began in 1970.
Blau’s work is a series of approximately 20 black and white photographs, documenting a family outing and entitledScenes From A Wisconsin Summer. On initially walking past these photographs one is struck, if no overwhelmed, by an evocation of summer heat and the atmosphere of one of Wisconsin’s numerous lakes. A second viewing, followed by a third, produces an odd sort of reversal, and Blau’s photographs begin to resemble nothing so much as the adequate, it ultimately boring snapshots of a stranger and his family. This is due less to any inherent banality in the subject matter itself as to a sense of uninspired vision, of lethargy at work behind the lens.
As for the photographs themselves: the technical merit of black and white photography is apparent, black areas being black, white areas being white, and the gradations of grays showing Blau’s competence in developing and printing. However, the lack of both atmosphere and compositional interest somewhat negates the purely technical merit,
Thomas is presently Director of the Houston Center for Photography. He was born and raised in San Francisco. He has taught photography at both the University of Arizona – Tucson and San Francisco State University. He has lectured and published extensively.
Thomas’ VCR Film Series consists of photographs of black and white Hollywood film production stills that have been copied into videotape with color and phrases added to them. The color was added by manipulation of the color balance in the monitor, and a character generator was used to add the phrases. The photographs were then recopied into still color photos.
In contrast to Blau’s approachable if undemanding work, Thomas’ present series makes a direct attempt to engage the viewer on various levels of intellectual inquiry. According to Thomas, the imposed captions are intended to distance the viewer from the original contect of the stills and lead him/her to an involvement with the presiding issue of space and time, and memory and language.
Although even a cursory viewing of this series would naturally lead to questions beyond those provoked by the inviolate still. Thomas seems to have curiously loaded the dice to his own disadvantage. He was done so by selecting his stills and his captions from opposite ends of the spectrum of accessibility. Thus, while the faces of Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and James Cagney possess an undeniably iconic value in terms of sheer familiarity. Thomas’ own phrases are cryptic to the point of resisting comprehension in any but perhaps the most costive way. The sole possible exception is his use of a still from Frankenstein’s Bride, with the caption of “Trouble in the Family,” which is neither obscure nor particularly relevant in terms of time, space, memory or language. It is, if anything, a bit reminiscent of Mad Magazine.
A number of the phrases do have a certain limpidly poetical or rhetorical charm, such as “Twilight of the Raw,” “White Fear,” and “Hollywood Castration,” but their relevance to the designated stills appears to be mutually interchangeable and random. In short, the film still possess an immediacy and an interest which remains long after Thomas’ phrases, however clever they occasionally are, have evaporated.

Liz Mengel and Robert Estep are freelance critics living in Houston whose recent review of the photographs of Robert Rauschenberg appeared in the summer issue of SPOT.