Petro's photography exhibit is worth the drive

Cars are a defining aspect of the American landscape in John Petro's exhibit "Parked Outside the Door" at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House. Although people are rarely seen in these color photographs, cars appear in almost every shot.

A typical photo features a single car parked near a single house, as if to emphasize that ours is a mobile culture. Indeed, there's even a shot depicting a red truck parked next to a mobile home in Cloverlick, W.Va.

Ironically, though, Petro often takes photos of junked old cars that aren't going anywhere. If anything, these junkers now seem as rooted to the earth as the weathered houses behind them.

Surely one of the oldest cars depicted in this exhibit is a 1930s-era vehicle resting in a field in Shamrock, Texas. Who knows, maybe this car once passed Bonnie and Clyde on the road.

Two of the most striking examples of vintage cars exposed to the elements were shot in the isolated former mining town of Leadville, Colo. The wood shacks seen behind these cars also look like they might collapse in the next storm.

Favoring rural scenery that's showing its age, Petro makes the point that such landscapes are like an open-air museum of transportation history. This is most strikingly the case in a photo shot in Bowman, N.D. Looking at a derelict wood wagon rotting in a field may prompt you to wonder how many years it has been since a horse was hitched to it; and the wood house in the background dates back to pioneer days.

Although the photographer's rural and small-town orientation runs through most of the exhibited photos, not everything is quite so austere. There's an old red-and-white-colored car parked in front of a house in Ocean Beach, Caif., for instance, but the house is painted a cheerful shade of blue and the fence in front of it is draped in purple-hued morning glories.

A festive tone is achieved in a shot of an old silver convertible parked in front of several colorfully painted commercial stores in Chualar, Calif.; the Mexican cultural impact along this street pungently comes across in a restaurant called La Fiesta.

Speaking of restaurants, a barn-evocative contemporary building in Branson, Mo., goes all out with its commercial kitsch by having an enormous red, white and blue sculpture of a rooster to advertise the restaurant. It would be impossible for hungry drivers to drive by without noticing it.

Petro also has some photos here that are overtly suburban in orientation. The houses are much newer, as are the cars. One photo shot in Centreville, Ark., reinforces the suburban car-and-house connection by showing a lineup of identically constructed townhouses that in effect have garages as their front doors.

And a photo taken in Phoenixville, Pa., depicts a brightly decorated tricycle parked in front of a suburban house. Even the youngest Americans have got their own wheels.

There also are some distinctly urban photos, including several shot in distressed-looking row house neighborhoods in Baltimore City. One photo makes an immediate visual link between a rusted-out car parked on the street and the mostly vacant row houses behind it.

Life continues in this urban environment, too, as suggested by a photo in which a relatively new-looking tricycle that's assertively colored purple, yellow and red is parked in front of a boarded-up row house.

Actual human beings make an appearance in a photo depicting two men relaxing in front of a Formstone-clad row house. These guys' lined faces look as worn as the row house's wood steps.

John Petro exhibits through June 1 at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, in Wilde Lake Village Center, in Columbia. Call 410-730-3987.

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