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Photographer turns the quirky into the sublime


For 17 years Jennifer Bishop's photographs appeared every week in the pages of the City Paper, Baltimore's alternative weekly, helping to define the look of the metropolis and its people. Bishop even had her own regular space, which she could fill with any image that pleased her, unfettered by second-guessing editors; she used it to record the quirky moments, sudden epiphanies, visual paradoxes and poetic ironies that define the strangeness of everyday life in this city.

Yet oddly, the photographer who chronicled the soul of Baltimore so relentlessly - and lovingly - has never until now had a one-person exhibit of her pictures in the town she has lived and worked in for the past 25 years. So Bishop's show at Photo Works in Hampden, which opened Saturday, qualifies as a must-see event for anyone who has followed her career over the years.

Bishop's photographs of Baltimore people and places epitomizes what critic Arthur C. Danto once called the "transfiguration of the commonplace." She deliberately avoided the self-consciously important and pretentious in favor of small, revelatory instants that mostly take place on the periphery of our urban vision. Of the 30-odd pictures in the Photo Works show, there's not a single shot of the Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon Place or Guilford's tony Sherwood Gardens.

Instead, Bishop, 43, points her camera mainly at the city's gritty inner-city neighborhoods of South Baltimore, Hampden, Remington and West Baltimore, with an occasional grudging nod to the shabbier chic precincts of Roland Park. Even there, the people she focused on seem more likely to show up in the newspaper's crime blotter than on the party pages.

This show includes some never-before exhibited works, as well as a selection of the nearly 900 photographs Bishop published in the City Paper between 1977 and 1994, when she finally relinquished her space there. By that time, the Bishop picture on the paper's inside page just under the table of contents had become a running clinical diary of the city's psychic life.

If there's any theme to this exhibit, it's relationships. Bishop has focused on situations that reveal the ties that bind men, women and children in family units, even when those ties are more implied than stated directly.

In "Grandparents" (1992), for example, we see only the feet, legs and torsos of an elderly, working-class couple seated in their home amid a clutter of children's toys, stuffed animals and an empty baby stroller. The picture doesn't tell us whether grandchildren are actually in the house or not, yet the evidence marks their presence unmistakably and defines how we interpret the two adult figures.

Similarly, in "Roosevelt Park" (2000) a baby carriage in front of a graffiti-strewn wall is flanked on one side by a young man holding an ax and a boy bouncing a basketball, on the other by a white-haired woman dandling a blond-haired little girl on her lap. The little girl seems just a bit too big for the baby carriage, which we can't quite see inside; it may hold the girl's little sister, and the young man and boy with the basketball may also be siblings. The picture tantalizes with a suggestion of dense familial relationships, none of which are ever made explicit.

One of Bishop's few Roland Park pictures shows a respectable-looking couple engaged in what appears for all the world like an intense discussion with their dog. The animal acts like a recalcitrant child, stubbornly oblivious, yet the scene, though slightly surreal, remains oddly familiar. After all, people talk to their pets all the time as if they were children. In this case, they have merely been caught in the act.

Bishop has had plenty of experience doing that kind of capturing.

She was born in Cleveland and moved with her family to Massachusetts before coming to Baltimore in the late 1970s for undergraduate study at Johns Hopkins University. As an aspiring writer, she worked for the school's student newspaper, the Hopkins Gazette, and during her sophomore year she and several enterprising members of the staff decided to try to keep the paper going over the summer break. They succeeded so well that soon they were able to break away and set up their own independent publication, which they first called the City Squeeze and later the City Paper.

Bishop discovered that she far preferred taking pictures to writing articles and ended up contributing more than half the photos for each issue. When she graduated from Hopkins in 1981, she got a job as a photographer for the News American while keeping her position at the City Paper, from which she drew a princely salary of $7.50 a week.

After about a year at the News American, Bishop left to start doing commercial and magazine work, a career she has pursued ever since. But she kept her space in the City Paper and over the next decade and a half published one of her signature pictures every week. She never made much money at it, but by then it was a labor of love as much as anything else - a way to express what she saw and felt in the most direct way possible.

Today, Bishop says her big influences were such photographers as Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark and Sebastio Salgado, the great photojournalists of her time. Like them, she shoots in black and white on fast Tri-X film and keeps her equipment to a minimum - she's happiest toting an old Nikon and a couple of lenses.

She also says photography has been as much about looking inside herself as about the world around her. She always wanted to experience as much as possible, and photography has been her way of bearing witness, which is another way of saying it's how she figures out who she is.

Though her pictures have been exhibited in group shows before, until now Bishop has never really pursued a one-person show. Over the years, she's gotten used to seeing her pictures in newspapers and magazines, a format that she finds completely satisfying. Nor has she ever been a darkroom devotee: all the pictures in this show were printed by the same commercial photo-finishing firm that does her editorial and advertising work.

It's just as well. Bishop is not the sort of photographer to make a fetish out of her prints or their presentation; all the works in the show are roughly 11-by-13 inches and mounted in 16-by-20-inch frames.

What we're left with is an appreciation purely for her photographic vision, a tender way of seeing the world that she cultivated for a quarter century. She developed an immensely sensitive antenna for the emotional emanations of ordinary people, conveying the mystery and wonder of everyday life.

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