l More than 150 years after Louis Daguerre snapped the world's first photograph, the power of camera and lens remains a minor miracle. Daguerre's initial effort -- a blurry view of his courtyard -- was extraordinary only for being so ordinary. Yet photography's unique ability to transform quotidian facts into objects of mystery is stunningly apparent in "Baltimore Portrait," an exhibition at City Hall through July 23.
Photographers J. Brough Schamp and Tom Guidera III have been documenting Baltimore's passing parade since 1990 with a vintage 1940s press camera set up on a gleaming silver tripod in front of a plain, white backdrop. Their method was simple: Go to various public places around the city, set up the camera on its stand and wait for curiosity to strike.
"What are you doing?" a passer-by asks.
"Taking pictures of anyone who wants them," the photographers respond.
"How much does it cost?"
"Nothing, it's free."
And the lines form.
You've seen these faces before, but the camera imbues on them a clarity that compels empathy, as if the images were visual equivalents of the classic line from "Death of a Salesman": "Attention must be paid." What emerges is a colorful, quirky, larger-than-life tableaux, a sort of apotheosis of everyday people:
Here is an elderly couple in Saturday get-up. Somehow the picture tells us they have been married a very long time. Also that she buys his clothes for him.
In another picture two small children and an adolescent girl all wear identical sandals. At first glance the girl looks like the children's mother; an instant later she's an older sister -- or half-sister. The family ties are implicit, yet ambiguous.
Elsewhere, a muscular bicycle messenger smiles easily into the camera. Next to him, boys show off their bikes, and one senses the liberating independence of spirit the vehicles confer.
Hey, there's Mary Pat Clarke! And her dog. And her husband, Joe. Also Mayor Schmoke!
But mostly it's just plain folks, the kind you might run into at the post office or supermarket.
The Evening Sun's John Dorsey left the show with a minor caveat: He thought the pictures too modest to portray an entire city. He is right. This is no panoramic view, just an engaging slice of life that looks like America, feels like home.