Members' First Exhibition

The following review of HCP's inaugural exhibition last summer first appeared in the group's newsletter shortly after the event.

Anyone viewing the premier showing of prints by members of the Houston Center for Photography would be hard pressed to deny there is a definite look and character to this exhibition.

Not that every one of the 121 prints by 21 photographers represented in eleven suites and ten single pictures are all birds of the same pin-stripe leather. But they do appear to have been grazing the same pond this season, establishing a very particular kind of kinship.

All, for instance, seem under the spell of real things: faces, places, bodies, and spaces are so palpably tactile that visually sifting through the works on the walls and exhibit boards of the second-floor hall evokes a physical response first, mental ones later. And the initial reaction to most -- not all-- is a response to the thing photographed rather than the eye of the photographer or the mechanical innovations and aesthetic risks he or she employed.
The romance and humor of hard-rock physical fact is what Jim Elmore's black-and-white pictures of bathers on British public beaches seem all about, as the bathers gather in herds and coveys as though posing for some natural science film about the habits of sea lions in clothes. It is the fact that the huge faces in David Crossley's 30-inch by 40-inch prints are tight close-ups on real people that gives them their very great tension (a tension that can be contrasted to the more stylized, subdued abstractions of photographs made famous by painter Chuck Close in the past decade).

"Real People," in fact, could be the title of Joyce Gold's picture called "Highway 96," of an elderly gentleman in front of his mobile home in the piney woods, and the gently humorous view of the straight lines of cloned summer houses near Galveston presented in Peter McClennan's "Bayou Vista" is dressed in simple fact. That Richard Simoni shot very straight, unmanipulated pictures of well-worn images — the Acona Pueblo, Shiprock in Arizona, and the Canyon de Chelly —bespeaks his intent to respect these monuments and let them impact on us directly.

This love of thingness continues even when we look at the more technically adventurous photography in the show. April Rapier uses infrared film and split-tone printing to make her details of landscapes (ranging from Providence, R.I., to Mexico) sizzle and pop. It is an attempt to raise objects onto a super-real level, into the realm of Surrealism, the logical cousin of the concerns of realism in the exhibition.

Similarly, Robert Rodeck's series on blue-print titled "Cement Becomes Concrete'* works that point of slippage between the real and the surreal with authority. While Rodeck's prints are as grand and elemental as some of the notable Earthwork projects by the late Robert Smithson, others here work a quieter, poetic strain of surreal double-meanings and dislocations.

James Tiebout, for instance, takes pictures of empty places — vacant drive-ins, and unpeopled tennis courts that do not remain empty as we watch them. Our minds, of course, move to fill them up, just as the photographer cleverly intends, Jim Caldwell's "Night Light" series shows strange color deliberately shot as though emanating from objects and places at odd hours while Barbara Ginsburg explores "real" color in common everyday items to show us that art is close at hand and very strange indeed — in flocked Christmas trees, knick-knacks, and the formal elegance and mystery of a red chair and red table.

Considering only the likenesses in the show, this adds up to a highly centrist position on contemporary photography. That is, photography is engaged to shoot the objects and people around us and to revel in them, rather than explore the risks and far reaches of abstraction and manipulation of film, camera, and processing. It is realism, though, for art's sake, for its own poetic content. If the HCP exhibition does not bow to abstraction on the left, it does not bend a knee to photography harnessed to any concern outside itself — not to social causes through documentary photography, not to commercial layouts, not to literary efforts or even to serial photography where the meaning lies somewhere between the prints.

The strongest strain in the exhibition, in fact, is a kind of poetic realism, seen most vividly in the work of Paul Hester, or, even more specifically, in one print, possibly my favorite in the show: an image of moss-hung trees in knife-sharp light and deep shadow along a bayou, with empty chairs pulled alongside the water. Everything depends on the relationship among these natural and man-made objects, some which the photographer can move, others he can't do anything about. The composition is one that classically isn't supposed to work — a huge, ragged shadow cuts the print unevenly down the middle with a cruel texture that even now, looking at letters on a keyboard and typing, I can feel with my fingers.

The note of personal poetry and a narration of relationships is what also carries the photographs of Patsy Arcidiacono in her "Colorado County" series of small, perfectly balanced and unbalanced prints. And it is seen in a number of the individual photographs and more extensive series, for example in Paul Judice's tilted, unfocussed shots of bodies and interiors where everything is disturbed and unsettled. Or in the two "School of Paris" photographs, one of the "Rue St. Charles" by Ginny Camfield, a real text on taste, and Don T. Rice's cafe scene reminiscent of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Will HCP emerge as a place for a return to a more literal concern in art photography? One show does not a trend make, nor a regional school, and just now at stage right the documentary photographers are arranging shows and at stage left, the experimenters, the risk-takers are getting ready.

By Mimi Crossley