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Essay by Mary-Kay Lombino

A vast and comprehensive survey of photography--large format and small, color and black-and-white, representational and abstract, straightforward and experimental--can be found in the home of Joyce and Ted Strauss. Double Vision includes nearly one hundred of these individually selected photographs. Illustrating the diversity of the collection, the exhibition covers a span of almost ninety years—-from the earliest image by E.J. Bellocq, circa 1912, to more recent additions to the collection by James Drake, Soo Kim, and Wolfgang Tillmans, taken in 1999. In addition, this selection encompasses the wide range of styles, genres, and forms of photography that have prevailed over the last century and a half. In viewing the work gathered together for this exhibition, it becomes clear that the power of the photographic image has solidly withstood the test of time, even in the face of other advances in science, technology, and visual imagery.

Rich in portrayals of human interactions and relationships, the Strauss collection invites viewers to experience the psychological effects that photography can sometimes achieve. The most compelling images in this exhibition have the potential to trigger memories of our own life experiences and are capable of taking us to faraway places and times gone by. When I look at the second of Nicholas Nixon’s ongoing series of photographs of his wife and her three sisters, for example, I am instantly transported back to 1976, the year my three sisters and I posed for a similar portrait on the occasion of my eldest sister’s high school graduation. Standing awkwardly in a line, perhaps trying to hide their youthful insecurities, sibling rivalries, and discomfort with being photographed, the Brown sisters reveal familiar yet private emotions in their facial expressions and body language. It was this second portrait by Nixon that prompted him to suggest to the four women that they assemble for one picture every year and that the order in which they would appear always remain the same. The mood of tenderness and intimacy evoked by the entire group of twenty-six photographs is the result of the artist’s ability to create deeply moving images that record and emit all of the vitality and psychological content of our emotionally charged experiences with our own families. Without resorting to sentimental cliché, Nixon has masterfully recorded the passage of time and the deepest of human values in the faces of his subjects.

The precise detail and sensitivity to subtleties evident in Nixon’s work are the result of his skill in using a large-format camera. His decision to work exclusively with an eight-by-ten-inch view camera was a departure from the trend of a time when many advanced photographers had been using small, hand-held cameras for decades. Thanks in part to Nixon, the 1970s saw a revival of large-camera photography. The view camera, which can be about the size of a computer monitor, was used during the early years of high modernism in American photography by the likes of Walker Evans, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. It is a relatively cumbersome tool that requires fairly long exposure times.

Asking someone to sit still for a formal portrait inevitably alters the relationship between the photographer and the subject, making it far less casual. This type of relationship tends to add a certain weight to the subject matter, a weight that is often apparent in the somber faces of the Brown sisters. The intense stare of the woman depicted in Strand’s Rifka, Kalata al Kobra, Delta, Egypt (1959) evokes a similarly timeless moment. The woman, appearing at a threshold, hands clasped, seems trapped by a deep and enduring sadness. In Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert (1928) also a deeply moving view-camera image, Weston endows a drooping tree with the majestic quality of a religious icon, matching the intensity and passionate spirit of any human drama.

Other photographers represented in the Strauss collection, many of whom favored the use of hand-held Leicas, pointed their cameras at social spectacles rather than intimate scenes, aiming to capture dynamic scenarios rather than moments of reflection. Unlike the works of such early modernists as Strand and Weston, the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand are often identified with the mobility and inconspicuousness that their small thirty-five-millimeter cameras afforded them. Precision, speed, and timing were employed to achieve a variety of effects. Winogrand’s timing allows us to bear witness to the frenzied energy that animates Hard-Hat Rally, New York, 1969. Frank captured the fleeting, frightened glance of a young boy in Pablo (1958), lending a crisp realism to the work.

Friedlander took his camera to the street and played the part of a spy or even a stalker in New York City (1966), in which his shadow appears on the back of his unsuspecting female subject as he pops up behind her for a close-range shot. Superimposed onto the woman’s coat, a perfect silhouette of the artist’s head creates a dark and ominous echo of her shape. In a much earlier example—-Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Saint-Lazare Station, Paris (1932)--the swift movement of an anonymous traveler is arrested just a few inches above a pool of reflective water. The artist deftly clicked at the precise mid-leap moment, resulting in the illusion that his subject is walking on water. Here, as in the Friedlander image, there is a doubling effect. Reflected in the water is an inverted figure of the leaping man, which is echoed by the silhouetted image and reflection of a mysterious figure lurking in the background.

In some of the more recent works in the collection, the varying approaches of such artists as Tina Barney, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Wolfgang Tillmans further demonstrate the versatility and well-roundedness of the Strausses’ interests. Tillmans, whose photographs have been lauded for their seductive power, has been known to bring his thirty-five-millimeter camera to nightclubs to produce on-the-scene, candid portraits of the eclectic individuals he encounters. In eight-ten (1999) Tillmans combined a style that references fashion photography with a preference for immediacy and a tendency toward idiosyncratic subject matter. This image goes beyond the glamorous surface of fashion advertising, testifying to the artist’s talent for depicting direct snippets of real life in beautifully rendered vignettes.

Harris’s one-of-a-kind Polaroid print The Nigerians is a theatrical narrative from a series called The Good Life, created in 1994. Here, in an operatic performance, a man and woman are posed with frozen faces and eyes that stare straight out at the viewer, confronting us with issues of gender fluidity, nationhood, and desire. Harris constructs an elaborate masquerade, setting the stage with the richly saturated tricolor flag of the African people, which serves as the background for the two subjects, who are adorned with opulent textures, feminized makeup and hairstyles, and an enormous headpiece, which is tightly cropped into the frame, emphasizing its absurd size. The potency of this completely staged and carefully choreographed image is enhanced by the slow and deliberate process that the oversize Polaroid camera demands.

Tina Barney is a prominent member of the current generation of photographers producing colorful, realistic, large-scale images of people, which demand a direct relationship with the viewer. In contrast to Harris’s photographs, her vibrant, almost life-size photographs of her family in their home might be mistaken for candid shots depicting day-to-day activities. Barney has chosen to forego the spontaneity of the snapshot, however, and, like Nixon, uses a tripod and a view camera to better capture the emotional intimacy and inevitably complex relationships that exist among family members. This choice demands careful premeditation and deliberate arrangement of the composition.

Jill and Polly in the Bathroom (1987) is an outstanding example of Barney’s proficiency at constructing artificial, staged scenarios that suggest an unadulterated view of reality. Two women appear in pink bathrobes among cosmetic products and flowery decor. The image appears to offer a glimpse into the private realm of daily ritual, yet the fact that the women had to stand still and pose for the shot calls into question the authenticity of the scene. In reference to this body of work, Catherine Evans noted that Barney’s photographs are “a kind of hybrid of two areas of exploration in current photography: the unvarnished document and the staged picture.”1 Barney presents us with the quintessential postmodern question: In the age of mechanical reproduction, is there such a thing as authenticity in representation? Or, more to the point: What is real?

One answer to that question can be found in the space that opens up between a photograph and its viewer. What is undeniably real is the powerful, authentic experience of relating to a photograph through familiar events and personal memories. We relate to brief glimpses into the lives of strangers (whether “real” or staged) because they are often reminders of sensations we recognize from daily life. To stand among the works in this collection is to travel through time and find oneself exploring many different places, near and far. The journey is guided by the seventy-one photographers represented here, who, through the lenses of their cameras, capture their own unique visions of the world around them.

--Mary-Kay Lombino
Curator of Exhibitions

1. Catherine Evans, Photographic Tableaux: Tina Barney’s Family Album, exh. brochure (Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art, 1999).

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