Measures of Light
by Paul Hester
San Antonio Project: Judy Bankhead 1976-1991
Organized by the Southwest Craft Center
Presented in conjunction with San Antonio's Contemporary Art Month
July 22-August 31, 1993
When I was a student at Rice University in the late 60s, we had a meter that measured light by comparing the value of available light to a standard gray dot contained within the meter. You aimed the thing at a surface, and turned a dial until the gray in the meter was the same as the light you were seeing.
I thought during my driver to San Antonio to see this exhibition. It seems we are always using the comparative method of that light meter to evaluate many things. Do Imeasure up to my ideal of someone else that I respect or idolize? Do I measure up to what Ithink I should look like? We are constantly measuring the light outside, and twisting out internal dials up or down to bring our image of ourselves into conformity with the external bright spot of the moment.
Whose San Antonio did I expect to sec in these photographs? A selection by theca Chamber of Commerce of "What to See and Do in San Antonio?" What Ifound, with few exceptions, were pictures made in the public domain: streets, bus stops, parades, intersections of one photographer's very private responses to public situations.
In an era of photographers striving to make their practices equal to those of the other arts through the use of color, large prints, painting on the surface, and elaborate studio setups, these quiet, unassuming observations in black-and-white appeared obstinately "untrendy."
What I was confronted with was the discrepancy between what I saw in her pictures and my idealized preferences for the way the world should look. She demanded that Iadmit my biases and assumptions and take another look at the world. It wasn't a question of whether I liked or disliked her photographs, but whether or notIliked the world! Ihad been going around with my meter, comparing this subject with that, this moment with that, establishing a hierarchy of values, and her photographs whispered. "Are you sure about that?"
Bankhead is certainlyplaying by the rules of documentary: 35 mm. eye level,straight ahead, "everydayness." She photographswhat anyone can see, nothing obviously exotic orbizarre or inaccessible. But within this framework, what has she chosen to show us? What does she intend for us to see?
She studied photography in the early seventies with Russell Lee, one of the exceptional photographers employed by the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) in the 30s. With these photographs, we have the privatization of the public experience; the documentary style has been cut adrift from any connection to a larger social purpose of the FSA. We are now suspicious of the ability of government programs to make any improvements in our qualify of life, suspicious of all gestures in the public arena, from press conferences to beauty contests. Our expectations are reduced to mistrust. One picture shows a young man seated in a church, looking down into a plastic drinking cup. Worshippers in the other pews are listening to the off-camera priest, but this young man seems disengaged. Why is he here? In another, we approach an African-American woman seated at a bus stop, looking suspiciously over her shoulder at us. Meanwhile, innocent bystanders line the wall in shadow. In a third, a young girl stands holding two balloons n the midst of hundreds of discarded beer cans and the other remains of a street party.
Does Judy Bankhead love or hate what she is photographing? The FSA and the Photo League photographers (among them Aaron Siskind, one of Bankhead's teachers in graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design) photographed from a stated desire to change the world. Can we figure out her position toward what we see in the pictures? Are there clues to decipher her attitude towards what she s showing to us? A man is standing with a rolling stretcher, a body covered with a black cloth embroidered "Angelus Chapel." He is waiting in front of two elevator doors. Will he go up or down? Questions of choice.
The traditional stance of the documentary style presumed an objectivity that implied neutrality: "And that's the way it was." I disapprove of much that I see in her pictures—what it means to get old in our society, the way cities are organized around the convenience of fire=belching mechanical monsters, the roles reserved for women in society or the imbalance between nature and things made —so I assume she, too, is critical of the same things. I am projecting my own attitudes on to her pictures, but it is a neutral field? For example, we see two older women in scarves waiting for the bus. One has her hand on the pole of the bus stop sign, looking down, holding her cane. The other woman is looking at the camera. Half her face is covered with her scarf. Her arms are folded, lips pursed. She is mistrustful, closed off. Do I recognize myself in this picture?
Bankhead subverts our expectations, as in a press conference with several still and videocameras pointing the same direction. Her camera is looking the other way. She identities her pictures with numbers, withholding clues about why she took this particular picture, why the people are doing what they are doing, no easy label of a short title that is too easily dismissed as "what this picture is about." She requires that we determine the story, examine our assumptions about what makes a good picture, about what is legitimate subject matter. She confronts us with one of those fleeting perceptions that goes right by without so much as a second thought. It is right there on the wall for us to remember, analyze, dissect, peruse, and contemplate.
Notice a street scene climbing toward an intersection, with telephone and tight poles bisecting the sky. On the left, the golden arches of McDonald's rise above the artificial planting of a gas station. In the right half of the picture, the large bell rower of a church rises above a dense grove of trees, three neglected metal frames for portable signs float in the wide expanse of concrete foreground, offering to balance the scales in our weighing of these two cultural values. It is a subtle and delicately composed image, posing a philosophical question at the same time as it juggles the fragments of a city street into a whole worthy of our serious attention.
Susan Sontag wrote that all photographs attain the status of art by becoming old. I am curious how historians in the future will decipher our culture through Bankhead's photographs. It is a wonderful irony that the pictures made in grocery stores were funded by the HEB grocery chain, showing us not the idealized shoppers of advertising, but images to be hung in the corporate headquarters to remind the managers who the customer is. For example, the back of a man in sweat-stained shirt, with a rag from a chenille bedspread in his hip pocket, a six-pack in each hand. In the magazine rack to his left an African-American woman on the cover of Black Hair Care magazine advertises "All the Best New Looks for Summer."
The pictures are full of gestures, caresses, facial expressions, postures, depleting with care how people bold themselves, carry the baggage of their lives and their bodies. There is an extraordinary photograph of a woman waiting for the bus, standing in front of a luggage store window holding an empty plastic clothes basket. Her face is tight, eyes closed, racing into the sun as if soaking up light to keep warm. Her jacket is buttoned up to her neck. A large white sign above her head, taped to the window, is advertising trash hags. Standing to her right with his foot on some pipes coming out of the wall is a young man. In contrast to his patient, bland expressions we see her taunt neck muscles, the paleness of her skin. Her hair is pulled back, her glasses removed and in her hand. The shadow of a pole falls across the sidewalk and up the wall, separating them.
There is a photograph of a man's face with a mask of two eyes held over his own eyes. The representation of the eyes are not "the real thing," merely a picture of the thing, without any of its function. Instead of seeing, they obscure the vision of the man. He is blindfolded, and the gaze of the male has been denied. The blindfold is also a disguise. Are they feminine eyes? Is it an attempt for a man to see the world through a woman's eyes? What does it mean when he can't? Is that his inability to see in her way, or is it a reference to the constructions that she feels have been forced on her to see the world through a man's eyes (male teachers, male curators, male father?) It made me wonder about the curatorial process that selected these 100 images from the 45,000 negatives she made in this fifteen year period. It is different in style from the other pictures. Here the subject is engaged, invited to participate in the making of the image. Does it refer to the protection of the self offered by the guise of documentary objectivity, where you remain invisible behind the camera, protected, not expressing yourself, only showing what was out there?
The primacy of the visual in our culture is most apparent in the popularity of photography. Success is based on appearances; Miss America is not the brightest or most talented, but chosen for how she looks when she walks around in high heels in her swimming suit. In one picture, we see the back of a beauty contestant, her face and dress reflected in a mirror. (It suggests the manner in which we all evaluate ourselves in terms of how others see us.) But the photographer's flash and own reflection are the central attraction in the mirror. Is the photographer comparing itself to this traditional standard of beauty and womanhood? If so, the highlight of her flash is insistent that she be judged by her actions as a photographer rather than her appearance, which is obscured.
Among the many photographs of single individuals, there are two of people eating alone. In one an older woman is sitting in an aluminum folding chair near a campfire at night. She is turnedaway from the camera, pouring from a sauce pan into a big cup. A large tree branch intrudes into the frame between the woman and the viewer. In the other a man is seated in a cafe with an empty napkin dispenser, empty bottles and discarded plates and cups around him. His hand is sunk into a white paper sack. The camera's flash bounces brightly from a large photo mural of trees on the wall behind him. The images are isolation, of the feeling of being outside, left out, shut out, alone in places of little warmth or comfort, of wandering around, on a search, looking for something.
This observation prompts me in ask what the significance of this show is for the photographer. Fifteen years is a large chunk of work to summarize in 100 pictures. Especially if the period began the year your father died, and ended in your fortieth year, with your mother dying just as you arefinishing the editing. This is the exhibition of a mid-life artist, asking the question of what comes next through the process of examining what she has been doing for fifteen years. It is a dividing line between one way and another, between what was and what will be. To look al these 100 pictures in that light, is to find in them an attitude toward the future. In the opening sequence of the exhibition is a photograph made on the edge of town, standing on the sidewalk, looking toward the undeveloped landscape. The sidewalk ends abruptly, grass continues, an old newspaper lies on the ground. It is a question about continuity. Skinny trees, worthless now, but implying a faith that someone will enjoy the shade of this tree, even if it's not you who plants it. Or is this sidewalk an implication of interruption? The absence of people in this photograph and so many others: the empty chairs by the swimming pool, empty chairs at the awards ceremony, empty streets and parksabandoned childhood toys, a vacant merry-go-round.
The question of what comes next is both personal and public. It deals with the photographer’s own life and work, and it involves a larger question about history and memory. How do we see ourselves as part of the continuity of culture? In these photographs Bankhead offers a serious critique of the dominant cultural values, and an equally serious questioning of what is worth saving.
At the same time there is clearly great affection for the individuals she so carefully observes. She accepts our warts, speed bumps, and failures, and accords each a quiet dignity and special place in her San Antonio. Her pictures both make me laugh and allow me to cry.
Paul Hester is a photographer. He recently moved his headquarters to Fayetteville, Texas.