These artists compel us to look at the rudimentary aspects of the medium, examining photography itself and what can be successfully accomplished within the context of visual discourse. These images present us with evidence from the artist’s experience that will serve to broaden our perspective and inform us of sequestered and abandoned vistas.
Photography remains unique among the arts for three very significant reasons. Firstly, at the point of inspiration, with the use of a small and portable mechanical device, the amateur, (or lover of) or has the capacity to respond to and record that source. With training in how the device interprets three dimensions into two dimensions, and with the knowledge of how the machine interprets color, the technician transforms. The now photographer has the capacity to render our human understanding of the world into what is essentially a schematic diagram. We are presented with a range of gray tones. Now the artist retains the capacity to render an interpretation of our surroundings into images that are at once cryptic and seductive. Cryptic because without distinct contextualization, the artist’s intention can be misdirected or misunderstood. Seductive because the description of our reality is rendered with such eloquence we are seduced into believing that what we see in two dimensions is actually what exists in our three-dimensional world.
The basis for our second most significant characteristic of the medium, is its literal narrative. The photographic document retains the capacity for a description that is beyond human comprehension. The photograph produces an image that is so full of details and facts that its level of a descriptive narrative is rivaled only by literature.
Finally, in its capacity to communicate, these aforementioned qualities combined together, build a foundation for a level of communication that is beyond the efficacy of most of the modern arts. As the artist builds a successful body of work, images can be edited, ordered and reshuffled, in order to produce clear and fluent documentation that is representative of the artist’s experience. This together with knowledge and understanding, a competent image maker can provide the viewer with a deeper concept of the intention and motivation of a skillful talent.
Here, with the documentarians presented in this exhibition, we find the revelation of a singular rarely seen reality. Rarely seen, not in so much as these dissections of time and space are rare and elusive captures of some unassailable destination, but more exclusive to particular experience of the practitioner.
In the case of the Rivers portfolio we find a photographer who is attempting to interpret his surroundings and to introduce the viewer to a reality that most might find pedestrian. However, by the simple act of editing out the rest of the world and selecting framing and composing a small part of this artist’s experience he elevates the moments and the place to one of particular significance. Through the course of his selection we are in a way forced to use the access provided into these darkly seductive landscapes of a common urban reality. Here as viewers we MUST take the time to enter, examine, interpret, and digest these scenes much in the same way that the artist remains intimately familiar with these interpretations.
Photography is a medium of facts. An objective description of a three-dimensional point of reference. The photograph has a limited tonal range and in a way is a general distortion of what we have the capacity of perceiving with our human eye. The photograph does not perceive smell, is not quiet, or peaceful, or loud. The photograph itself does not have the capacity for political or social implication. Any and all of this subjective and editorial motivation is brought to these images by the viewer. An image made in a specific place and at a particular time of a selected subject matter with proper context can evoke an emotional, or intellectual response in a viewer that might spark those kinds of political and social reactions. In many cases what the artist intends may not necessarily be what the viewer understands by looking at the images.
As the photographer understands the scope and limitations of the medium and is capable of using his understanding of the mechanism to the advantage of his storytelling, the capable photographer is able to use the device, a selection of images, time of day, the right light, and compositional elements, to compose a competent body of work that are capable of evoking an emotional or intellectual response.
In the Traivers statement, the viewer is left to contemplate what appear to be vast abandoned warehouse and factory spaces. Empowered with the knowledge of the effect of light and time using a photographic device, this photographer pours generous portions of light into his exposures. At face value, the images pose a query and simultaneously declare an imperative, “What is it that we were, to evolve into what we have become?” The presentation of the evidence of these looming carcasses, these structural cadavers, are a disturbing reminder of our squandered youth as a burgeoning industrial giant. Even more questions remain unanswered. “What mammoth creatures occupied these spaces?” “What great future was forged here?” “How much wealth could exist to allow such spaces to waste away in the unrelenting embrace of time?”
So here are two photographers, one dwelling in the decay of what was, and the other prowling the avenues of promise denied. Both of these photographers function within a context of an infrastructure that is failing reinforced with elusive whispers of an ill-conceived prosperity.
If we the viewer finds beauty here did the photographer conceive it? If we find pathos did the image-maker frame that quality into the composition? If we find a basis for political discourse, did the photographer somehow extract these qualities from the twilight and knit them into these images? These outcomes are doubtful. However what moves the viewer to these points of consideration is the simple objective statement of truth, fluent description of objective reality that resonates with the viewer’s own understanding of our own personal experience that we can recognize in this work. We perceive the understanding and manipulation of elements of time, tonality, color, and texture, and composition, presented in such a way as to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. It is at this point we become curious about the photographer’s intent. Now the doors of understanding are open. Communication begins. Discourse is established. Enlightenment is achieved.
Lonnie Graham is an artist, photographer, and cultural activist located outside of Philadelphia, PA. Graham is a Pew Fellow, and current Penn State Professor. He is the former director of Photography at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Pittsburgh, PA, former Acting Associate Director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, PA, and former instructor of special projects and oral historian for the Original Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.
Graham’s own work is focused on the role of an artist in society, and investigates the ways that artists can act as creative problem solvers.