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KEN ROSENTHAL

April 4 - May 24, 2003 at Michael Dawson Gallery, Hollywood

by Jody Zellen


Ken Rosenthal is a Los Angeles born photographer, now based in Tucson. He studied at USC, receiving a BA in still photography and then went on to earn a masters in photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Although his work has been seen in group exhibitions in Tucson, he has not yet received much national attention. For his solo debut in Los Angeles he presents 30 photographic prints that explore the theme of memory. In Seen and Not Seen, Rosenthal examines how our memories are informed by photographs as well as by dreams, and how events or people that we remember might in fact be things we never experienced. The inspiration for this body of work came from looking through family photographs. Rosenthal remarks, "As I would look through our old family photo albums, I began to realize that many of the memories these pictures evoked would seem very real to me, but in reality the pictures were taken before I was born, or were of events where I was not present."

The images Rosenthal presents are reworkings of the original family photographs. Rather than working them digitally, Rosenthal does his manipulation the old fashioned way, in the darkroom. He uses a number of different diffusion techniques while printing, or uses bleach and selective toning after the work is printed. An experienced printer, Rosenthal worked in Arnold Newman’s studio, and uses in his own work those techniques he picked up working there. Rosenthal’s toned silver gelatin prints are modestly sized squares. Each image seems to be shot through a haze. The images are soft focus and blurry. The blurriness adds mystery as well as a timelessness to the work. While many of the images present recognizable imagery--pictures of women and children, family outings and games--it is impossible to ascertain a specific identity. Rosenthal wants these images to evoke another time and place, to suggest a memory of a person or event without the ability to recall details.

The subjects include infants as well as adults. They capture random gestures as well as ambiguous moments. In one image a figure sits on a horse. As most of the image is composed of ground and sky, it is impossible to identify the rider or the location. Similarly a man looks out at a cavernous expanse. Is this the Grand Canyon? Are we seeing a photograph meant to capture the awe of nature in relation to the individual, or is it just a badly composed snapshot? Since it is impossible to know what the original looked like or why it was shot, we are forced to trust Rosenthal’s manipulations. After all, he is re-telling the story, re-writing history, re-presenting his family’s drama, but in doing so transforming the autobiographical into the universal.


From the series "Seen and
Not Seen (#1311-3)", 2001,
photograph, 16 x 20".






From the series "Seen and
Not Seen (#001-A-1)", 2001,
photograph, 16 x 20".






From the series "Seen and
Not Seen (#483-3)", 2001,
photograph, 16 x 20".







From the series "Seen and
Not Seen (#FJR-46-5)", 2001,
photograph, 16 x 20".

If the people in the images are from Rosenthal’s family, they transcend the specific and stand in for all of us. One image depicts a boy playing baseball, another a girl dressed as a ballerina. We see a suburban house, a picnic, the pet rabbit. Rosenthal’s images are about the mood and the moment. The images are peaceful; there is no danger present. Yet they do not seem to communicate eternal bliss either. Since we see the images through this constructed fog, their meaning is obscured. We never know what happened, only what might be going on. While the photographs present some of the story, we use our imagination to fill in the blanks. We create a narrative based on the relationship between the images. Whether the narrative we create is the right one does not seem to be the point. What interests Rosenthal is that the images speak to the very nature of memories or dreams, and that we identify with an image and relate that image to personal experience.

The blur has become popular in photography. We are by now accustomed to looking at large scale photographs that disintegrate before our eyes. Rather than enlarge his images to emphasize the out of focus qualities, Rosenthal presents them as warm toned images meant to be seen on an intimate scale. They are not harsh or confrontational. Rather they are seductive and evocative images that fuse fact and fiction, true and false, seen and not seen.