IN THE YEARS since Ben Shahn's widow donated 2000 of her late husband's photographs to the Fogg Art Museum, photography at the Fogg has risen from the status of stepchild to full fledged member of the illustrious family of "fine arts." Even now, one of the Fogg's best-kept secrets is its small but distinguished collection of 20th-century photographs, and rarely is a photography show celebrated with a black-tie opening or an expensive catalogue as was the current Ben Franklin exhibit. Despite the museum's limited budget and space, Contemporary Photographs V is the fifth in a series of exhibitions (and the third this year) that focuses on the latest achievements of lesser known contemporary photographers.
Tucked away in a back gallery, the show displays the recent black and white photographs of four young artists, two men and two women. The style and themes, and to a lesser extent, the success and quality, of these pictures vary from photographer to photographer. Each work in the show is the skillful product of a distinct artistic personality.
Guy Russell, a graduate of Boston University who teaches at Boston's Art Institute, takes pictures of the corners and sides of buildings. His photographs, seemingly simple and straight-forward, are carefully composed studies of the textures and geometry of a man-made environment in which, trees and-bushes and the crumpled, black shadow left behind by an unseen figure are exotic and often witty interlopers. One of his best photographs is a picture of the thick base of a tree, its bark the texture of an elephant's hide, surrounded by the long, slender fronds and serrated edges of various plants. Here Russell's sensitive eye has captured a startling range of tones and textures.
WHEREAS RUSSELL'S PICTURES are literal and non-dramatic, those by Rosamund Purcell, also a graduate of B.U., are mysterious and taught with background. Purcell works almost exclusively with Polaroid Land materials. She is the most experimental of the four artists exhibited, using superimposed images, double exposures and unusual lighting--a woman clad in leotard and tight lying in a cone of light on a wooden floor is transformed into an unconscious astronaut hurtling through black space.
In another photograph we see a woman, dressed in an old-fashioned skirt and blouse, staring off to the right at something beyond our vision. She is standing next to an old stone bird bath, and the ground around her is strewn with dead leaves. This image is superimposed on a broken pane of glass whose pieces form a jagged jigsaw puzzle. The glass is at once a mirror and a window; whether we see an illusion or reality is left as enigma, as is the identity of the woman and the meaning of the scene.
Like Purcell, Alex Webb '74 makes photographs that reflect private fantasies triggered by the external world. Webb is an alumnus of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts who now freelances in New York. His pictures have the raw, spontaneous look of snapshots, yet his images are carefully selected. He focuses on the unguarded reactions of people to their environment more than Russell or Purcell, and many of his best shots are of visitors to a carnival. Children wander aimlessly over an asphalt globe littered with popsicle wrappers and half-eaten ice cream cones; a young girl's dark, wild-eyed apprehensive face is juxtaposed with the blurred bodies of other children being whirled through space by the long arms of a giant swing.
THE ONLY REAL DISAPPOINTMENT of the show is the work of Carol Ginandes '69, which too often fails to meet the standard established by the other three photographers. Ginandes's pictures, portraits of her women friends, are taken from her forthcoming book Of Woman Born. The photographer are accompanied by long statements in which her subjects discuss their feelings about themselves, their lives, and their relationships with men and other women. Many of them are divorced or gay and struggling to cope with a society which seems to provide only restrictive role models.
Though Ginandes's ambition to allow her subjects to supplement her pictures with their own words in order to provide the viewer with a more comprehensive impression of these women is sincere, the quotes are too long, repetitive and humorless. Worse, the photographs too rarely give us any insight into the character of the sitters. Those that do, like the picture of the lesbian couple sitting on the steps outside their apartment, their faces cool masks of defiant disdain, make the verbal statements superfluous.
Ginandes's photographs are the only weak spot in an otherwise excellent show. In a year in which we pay homage to the achievements of our forefathers, it is also important to recognize the accomplishments of our most talented contemporaries. Right now the Fogg is one of the best places to see what in another 200 years just might rate a black-tie opening.