Sites/Sights: Uncertain Terrain
Exploring the vision of Peter McClennan, By Bernard Bruno
(Sites/Sights was an exhibition of photographs known recently at the Almeda Project for the Arts, Houston. It was curated by Peter McClennan.)
When a photographer is given carte blanche to put together a photography show, the result is always to be of interest since it will clearly illustrate his definition of photography. Sites/ Sights indeed tells us much about Peter McClennan's ideas on photography. Through the presentation of four photographers (Moira McCarthy, formerly from Houston and now living in New York; Kevin Clarke, also living in New York; Skeet McAuley, from Dallas; and McClennan, who lives in Houston) the show scans its subject in a sharp and acute vision, from an "image of reality" to "the reality of the image."
Published as a book, Kevin Clarke's Kaufhausweltt (Department Store World) is a compilation of seventy-three black and white photographs taken in West Berlin's huge KaDeWe, or "department store of the west." Clarke photographed every department in the store, "selecting sales persons and contradicting or integrating them specifically in relation to the goods they represented and sold." He conceived the book as a "critical documentation" and one cannot help but recall Face of Our Time, August Sander's book on the German people, and his remark that "The individual does not make the history of his time; he both impresses himself on it and expresses its meaning. It is possible to record the historical physiognomic image of a whole generation and…to make that image speak in photographs." Like Sander, Clarke finds relationships between the appearance of a person and his or her occupation. But he goes even further to say, or to show, that the salesperson takes on the look of the goods he or she sells. If we read this relationship as one of resemblance rather than similitude, would it imply that the goods arc the prototype and the person the copy?
Looking at Skeet McAuley's "Native Americans" series, you expect to find there some story about Indians or, recalling Edward Curtis' or A C. Vromans work, to have a glance at early American history. But these images, of which the majority are landscapes, carry almost no information. Some are photographs of actual archeological sites but they show very little about the "digs"; obviously that is not their purpose. They are empty, cold, like the stills from a movie after the crew has deserted the lot. All you are left with is a beautiful color photograph whose beauty has no referent. A sign in the corner of a photograph tells you that a dinosaur trail dating back to 100 million BC. has been found on this spot, but all you actually see is the arrow pointing at it.
Moira McCarthy's work is equally expressionistic, although in a totally different way. While McAuley's images are equivocal and could easily leave you with only the thrill of beautiful and subtle colors. McCarthy s black and white photographs arc dense and packed with emotions, even though her vocabulary is minimal. In the first series she presents self-portraits, posing next to religious statues and symbols, and somehow interacting with them. The use of a slow shutter speed to obtain blurred motion in the picture accentuates the dichotomy and brings a disturbing confusion: the statue, the unreal element, becomes real in its photographic immobility while the real person turns into a ghostly blurred figure. The space in which these little dramas occur has no depth, as on a stage where there is no possible escape through the back, which reinforces the uncomfortable feeling. The use of black and white perfectly fits the subject without inhibiting the humor.
Her second series of self-portraits shows more complexity despite the recurrence of dual elements. In these photographs, she sets her camera in the street, then interacts with the crowd, but again separating herself from it. Varying shutter speeds, she is either in motion in a frozen crowd or motionless among moving people. The embarrassment of most of them, their questioning looks at Moira or at the camera are also ours in front of these images, as we are confronted with a ritual-like behavior whose meaning evades us.
As an ongoing Houston landscape project, the color photographs of Peter McClennan are far from cliched views of a city. They don't pretend to be beautiful, with their abrupt colors and simplistic elements, however they are fascinating. As in a Japanese Haiku, a few banal objects are interlocked in such a way as to displace their meaning and create a space full of poesy and humor. These landscapes are not real, since it is only through the viewfinder of the camera that they reveal their poetics. Each image works like a pop-up book which, once you open it, unfolds its multilayered space. In his earlier work, McClennan obtained the same results through the juxtaposition of two images where the passing of time, the change in light, or in framing from one image to the other would create this dense and complex space. Having refined his vision, he is now making subtle single images that require scrutiny to see beyond their guise and fully appreciate their sensibility.
"Fog in Maine", a sequence of ten color photographs presented as one piece, comes also from the double images and in a way is closer to their original concept. Moving linearly in time and space from a close-up of a rock to a view of the shore to a total gray fog, the piece also describes a circle, from an abstraction to another abstraction, through an incredibly beautiful romantic seascape.
In his work, McClennan does not try to evoke "the real" by its representation. His interest is in the photographic image itself, and this show was for him another means of investigation. "Site/ Sights" does not pretend to answer all the questions asked about photography, not to establish any truth. What comes out of it, though, is the idea that a possible definition of photography lays somewhere at the cross-section of these four works.