The 1980s proved to be a ripe decade for photography, as many photographers questioned the subjects and techniques they had inherited from the street photography epitomized by Robert Frank's studies of Americans in the 1950s. Also running through the '80s, on a societal level, was the ongoing re-examination of American family values that still has many a pollster working overtime in this electoral season.
What amounts to an interesting conjunction of these two quests is the motivating force behind the large photographic survey "Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort," at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Oct. 4. Organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the show presents multiple examples by 62 American photographers active in the '80s.
At one aesthetic pole are the documentarians applying the values of street photography to a domestic setting. Not surprisingly, many of them still shoot bluntly straight-on views with black-and-white film. At the opposite aesthetic pole are the irony-fixated postmodernists whose pictures are arranged as carefully as any stage set and shot with the artificially bright hues of Cibachrome.
Yet other photographers represent in-between positions that bridge -- or hopelessly confuse -- categories.
One thing most of this photographic multitude has in common is that, having grown up in the 1950s and '60s, they are in various ways revisiting the locales and values of their baby-boomer youths. This is dealt with most explicitly by Larry Sultan, whose selection of work includes frame enlargements from actual 8 mm home movies of his family. There is a sense of nostalgia in such domestic photography, to be sure, but it's often matched by a smile at the glorious tackiness of American suburban life.
Simply consider all the exhibited photos featuring floral print sofas that the depicted family members take for granted, but that your voyeuristic gaze might find humorously appalling. Walking through this show, you'll often feel as if you've popped into somebody's living room unannounced, and there will also be a shock of recognition as you see some of the same mass produced bric-a-brac you grew up with, too.
Photos that represent the documentary tradition include Joan Albert's "Nathan in His Room," in which the casual shot of a
TV-watching teen-ager in his movie poster-bedecked bedroom says as much about him as anything he might mumble; other photographers in the exhibit also spend photo graphic time in that gold mine of revealing clutter, the adolescent bedroom. And leaving no part of the middle-class home unexplored, William Eggleston even has a shot of shoes under a bed.
There are also intriguing photos that build on the documentary tradition and take it somewhere else, as in Melissa Ann Pinney's "Marcy's Baby Shower." This image of four women standing quietly on a porch seems so carefully composed that they almost resemble allegorical statues of maternity. But a viewer is left unsure as to whether they were simply encountered that way, in a documentary sense, or whether the photographer nudged them into poses.
There's no doubt about the stage management at the postmodern end of the spectrum, with Laurie Simmon's "Coral Living Room With Lilies" and Frank Majore's "Interior" among the images using gaudily electric hues for home furnishings. You wonder, of course, if the heightened artifice extends to the people who presumably live in such rooms. Going still further into playful menace is Ken Botto's "Fort Winnebago," in which a doll house and toy vehicles (including a tank parked next to the house) make for a picture in which pleasure and terror coexist on the same make believe suburban street.
'Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort'
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.
When: Wednesdays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through Oct. 4.
Admission: $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and students, $1.50 for children 4 to 18; free for children younger than 3; and free for everyone on Thursdays.
Call: (410) 396-7100.