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Picture Perfect

Boston Now: Photography The Institute of Contemporary Art Through September 1.

By Daniel B. Wroblewski

INSIDE THE INSTITUTE of Contemporary Art (ICA) a five-foot high black and white photograph of a cat--a simple shot pasted together from 16 smaller rectangular prints--hangs beside several photographs of desert rock brushed over with turpentine and enamel. Downstairs a collage of images made from videotape of the Mary Decker-Zola Budd Olympic confrontation faces Ku Khux Klan members garbed in colorful, hooded uniforms.

The works featured in the Boston Now: Photography exhibition are creative, not merery because of their subjects and composition. but for the ingenious ways they mold photography into art. Some of the artists concentrate on the image. the lighting, subjects, and angle, while others alter the medium, the paper and printing techniques. But each does something unique.

Micaela Rantoul, for example, made enormous prints (39" X 39") from negatives shot with an old, children's camera. The enlargements were grainy and soft-focused. By rushing the prints through the fixing process, she added a soft pinkish tint. The result is an extraordinary use of photographic techniques to produce images that no longer resemble photographs.

The exhibition, in fact, seems to have been designed to show the many unconventional ways photographers have modified their craft to make unusual imagery. In the show's catalog, ICA curator David Joselit writes: "Ours is a culture where virtually everything has been 'heard about.'" Joselit and the other curators have tried to assemble photographs that the public has not seen, that shock us through their creative and imaginative use of technology, as well as their unfamiliar subjects.

Even if your experience with photography is limited to instamatic shots of your family at your sister's graduation, you will appreciate how some photographers use large Polaroid negatives while others use infrared film; some use color, others black and white; some make huge life-size prints, others print images only inches long. At the ICA, there are photographs of familiar tourist spots and traditional portraits, ugly Indians and bizarre animals.

FOR MANY ARTISTS, the photograph is not merely an instrument to capture an instant of life which they have uncovered. The image on film can be as abstract as a stray brush stroke on canvas. Many of the photographers have hidden their pictures, unfocused or brushed over them, to obscure the subject and highlight the shapes. The photographs have become, for better or worse, art.

Carl Chiarenza shot torn film wrappers to create what one curator described as the only "pure abstract" work of the exhibit. Gary Duehr's Meridian series contains photographs taken intentionally unfocused and the images within them are unrecognizable.

Charles Meyer's series of colorful pictures present Klansmen in Alabama, aressed in their traditional hooded uniforms, staring proudly into the camera. These journalistic photos hane opposite Bonnie Donohue's college of blurry video reproductions documenting the 1984 Olympic women's 3000-meter race.

With political writing concerning Budd's background superimposed, Donohue's piece seems more a vent for social commentary than an example of art. Not that it is ugly. it seems to be included in Boston Now: Photography, as may of the works are, because of its novel use of photography to express political or social opinion. The beauty of these works may be debated, but their novelty can not.

Several photographers created images from television pictures, though for different purposes, according to ICA Director David Ross. Linds White created a series of prints called Faces, video images reproduced on paper. The photos, by revealing the pixels which composed the image, showed the incongruity of the trust we put into television pictures, Ross explained.

The message may take some time to understand, or even accept, but you can easily see that these photographs are intriguing in their originality, their contrast with more conventional photographs like Rudi Robinson's The Invisible Men/Europe series. Robinson who photographed Blacks in Europe said that he tried to show Americans that middle-class, "average" European Blacks exist. He tried to do this merely by depicting Blacks in ordinary situations. "I don't offer much explanation on images. I just take pictures," says Robinson.

Karl Baden took mundane television scenes (even a game show contestant) and collected them into groups of four. He has tried to unearth hidden suggestions contained in the pictures by putting them next to others. By no means is it Baden's photographic skill that is on display at the ICA: it is his artistic eye that hangs in the gallery. And it is the way he exhibits that talent, using the spacing of other people's images rather than his own photos, that makes him unique.

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