Points of View: All-Star Lineup, Almost

By April Rapier

Points of View: Ference Berko, Franco Fontana, Joel Meyerowitz, Nicholas Nixon, Stephen Shore, and Goerge Tice. Benteler Gallery, Houston, February 27 – April 13.
Much of this work, whether color or black and white, had a timeless quality, which made this grouping rather intruiging. Both Tice and Berko exhibited older images (1950s and 1960s); the only pictures that had dated feel to them were Fontana’s pop color landscapes. Meyerowitz’s images are from the book Cape Light, published in 1978.
Although the pictures are stunning, they have been much-written about, and need no further discussion here. (It is of interest, however, that the images selected from that particular group are homogeneous, excluding the more eccentric in favor of the beautifully neutral.) Berko’s images should be excluded, because they were decrepit, ferrotyped, unspotted, and in general of little interest, even as “vintage” imagery. One wonders why he was so poorly represented in this otherwise all-star lineup.
George Tice’s images are meditative reflections about the presence of a place; usually the inclusion of people is supplemental. This grouping deals mostly with farmland around the Pennsylvania countryside, the land of the Amish. The pictures are not impelled by a need to mitigate or instruct, nor do they alter one’s impression (in the way that a Shore image might hope to do) of a situation and its principals. Tice seems historically to be project-oriented, his ideas and opportunities extensive and varied.
Like that of his mentor, Steichen, his vision is quiet and self-assured, involving, eternal.
Franco Fontana, a well-known Italian commercial photographer, relies on the artifice of false light and film’s capacity for trickery to create a newish landscape with huge splashes of loud color. When he isn’t misrepresenting terrain, he is graphically portraying fields (“Landscape, 1978”) in the manner of Mario Giacomelli (Giacomelli, of course, being the master). The pictures are smug and self-satisfied, and very much the same.
Stephen Shore’s portfolios have become increasingly similar, formulaic over the years. Although they are beautiful, and use color nearly perfectly (with regard to temperature and ambient feel), their beauty is light-headed, giddy. They are reminiscent of musical movements these passages do not lead beyond their immediate space and time. One longs for more of the “Presidio, Texas, 1975” or “Maw Street, Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, 1974” imagery — lovely and common place, with dirt roads, dirt colors, the haze that hangs over small, forgotten towns — less ritual of precision than a moving and powerful record of passage to the next place.
Nicholas Nixon’s work, dating from 1975-77, documents the little miracles that turn life upside down and make it worthwhile. For example, “Marsh Hill, Pennsylvania, 1977” is a simple but thoroughly compelling wonder of ordinary life. IN a suburban backyard, a child examines a huge snowball, some trees and shrubs, fences and houses, and more snow on the ground. The sky is overcast but bright, and the light is very nice. As the magic of the image starts to sink in, one wonders how the snowball got so big, and why. There is no indication whatsoever of Nixon’s presence or influence, the essence of all his work. No matter that kids may be smiling right at the camera — the situation seems to create itself, unfold at its own pace. One doesn’t sense any rush or directorial attempt, and this absolute reality is devastating and wonderful.
“Charlevoix, Michigan, 1977” is another amazing moment, non0invasive, graced with anonymity, and very revealing. Two kids are swimming in a creek behind a dense covering of limbs and leaves; a towel hangs on a limb in the foreground, as does a bandana, mysteriously full and tied around a branch. One is immediately curious about its contents, the journey that would precipitate its need; in the background, a house slowly enters the viewer’s awareness, implying that safety, after all, isn’t so far away. These images speak about privacy. The thoughts people have at the moment the shutter snaps are almost visible, palpable. Nixon moves through areas that have been traveled before, but the results are brand new.