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Big splashes, empty images


The more I ponder critic Clement Greenberg's dictum that only results count in art, the more skeptical I am about the direction photography has taken recently.

Such grumblings are occasioned by a couple of current shows: "Photo-Synthesis," at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington, surveys recent postmodern photography. "The Necessary Document," at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center, reflects on a once-celebrated genre that is fast becoming extinct.

But let me illustrate by example, rather than by ponderous logic.

Once, long ago, when I was child of about 35, I went to see Woody Allen's movie "Zelig." The title character, through the magic of special effects, manages to be present at all the pivotal events of the 20th century -- the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Hitler's rise, the A-bomb, etc.

I was fascinated and amazed by the movie -- so much so that afterward, as we were exiting the theater, I remarked to my companions: "What a great documentary!"

What a nincompoop. In my cinema-induced daze, I hadn't noticed the special effects at all. I just saw the story, replete with archival footage whose authenticity seemed incontrovertible. Imagine my chagrin when I was told, very gently, that the whole thing was made up, not a scrap of it true.

I'm sure some people were similarly taken in by Cindy Sherman's famous "Untitled Film Stills" of the late 1970s. In those signature works, the artist dressed up in the costumes of 1950s-era B-movie heroines, then photographed herself in scenes that mimicked the look of the marquee pictures which theaters of the period used to advertise their shows.

These so-called "production stills" were themselves a bit of Hollywood hokum, by the way. As a kid in the 1950s, I thought they were literally "stills" -- that is, individual frames excerpted from the movie. But of course they weren't; they were setups, staged scenes that may or may not have actually appeared in the film being shown.

Sherman took the deception a step further by creating a whole series of "film stills" not only of scenes that never happened but of movies that never existed. She was very good at it. It was fairly common, in the early days, at least, for viewers to insist they had actually seen the "movies" from which her "stills" supposedly were taken.

Rudolph Arnheim, the psychologist and theorist who wrote pioneering essays on the art of photography, insisted that what made photography unique among all the arts was its peculiar power to "compel belief in the truth of what is represented."

Postmodernists like Sherman, by contrast, reject the notion that photographs have a privileged relationship to truth. For them, a photograph is no more or less "true" than any other kind of image. Indeed, much of their artistic practice involves the systematic debunking of the naive credulity we bring to photographs.

Sherman in Delaware

Two of the artist's "film stills," now nearly a quarter-century old, are the opening works in the Delaware exhibition. Both depict the artist as a young woman apparently trying to find her way amid the opportunity and danger of the city, and there is something oddly off-kilter about both pictures. In one, she is seen striding along the sidewalk with a determined look; in the background, the blank facade of a large building looms above her menacingly. In the other, she is a flustered pedestrian at an intersection; her clothes are slightly askew and the expression on her face suggests she is either arguing with, or fleeing from, someone just outside the picture frame.

Sherman's strangely disturbing images are widely acknowledged today as the opening salvo of the postmodernist revolution, and it's telling, perhaps, that they remain the most persuasive arguments for postmodern photography of all the works in the show.

Annee Olofsson, whose large color photographs of herself mimic Sherman's self-posed pictures, seems pathetically derivative -- imitations of Sherman's imitations of Hollywood's imitations of ... Really, what's the point?

Margi Geerslink makes large photos of fictitious scenes that have the technical sleekness of advertising images. In "Pinocchio," for example, an old man (presumably Geppetto) sits at a sewing machine stitching together the body of a young boy lying limply on a table. It's a clever picture that carries all the robust conviction of an ad for F.A.O. Schwartz, which is to say it's too smug by half.

Megan Boody makes large, computer-generated color collages representing some sort of fantastic Freudian fairy tale. Her confused jumble of archaic and modern imagery would give pastiche a really bad name if it didn't have one already.

And so it goes with this show. All the works but one are big, big, BIG, as if desperate to proclaim their importance. (The exception, Paul Blanchard's Ansel Adams-Edward Weston-Paul Caponigro-Emmet Gowen-lookalike landscapes, are tiny, tiny, tiny -- the opposite shtick.)

Most of the works are in color, too, but it's hard to figure out what, if anything, these artists want to say with color. Ed Sheckman's computer-altered images of churches have the dappled look of Impressionist paintings but none of the sensuous appeal. Didn't we get over the idea sometime around 1910 that in order to be art, photography had to look like painting?

The point is, this show is mostly about photographic technique: computers, mural prints, color processes, collages. But it's technique that doesn't seem to be in service of anything much larger than itself. Sherman at least had something to say with her photographic fictions: about the malleability of identity, about the frustration and vulnerability attached to constricting social roles. The Delaware show suggests that postmodern photography has degenerated into a cult of mostly empty rhetoric and splashy pictorialism. Sherman's appearance here reminded me of the recent Vermeer exhibition in New York, where the curators assembled hundreds of pieces by other artists to provide "context," yet succeeded only in demonstrating the shattering gulf between genius and mediocrity.

Documentary works

School 33's "The Necessary Document" doesn't have either the highs or the lows of the Delaware show. It's mainly a modest examination of the ways in which some artists have tried to keep alive the venerable modernist tradition of documentary photography.

The best work in the show is Andrew Elberfeld's lyrical portrait of his physician father, which has the poignancy of W. Eugene Smith's masterful photo-essays for the old Life magazine, and H. Thomas Baird's extended essay on the ecological disaster represented by the Centralia Mine Fire in Schuylkill County, Pa., which has been burning out of control for the last 35 years. Some of the most striking images in the show are Pat Sullivan's pictures of the birth of her granddaughter Riley, who was born three months prematurely. The impact of these images is somewhat blunted, however, by Sullivan's less than first-class technique.

Also at School 33 is the debut exhibition of Michele Gienow, a local freelance photojournalist whose dreamy images made with inexpensive plastic cameras represent a new stage in her evolution as a visual artist.

Images on view

"Photo-Synthesis: Recent Developments in Contemporary Photography," is on exhibit through July 22 at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, 200 S. Madison St., Wilmington. Open daily except Monday. Admission is $3 adults, $1 for students, seniors and artists, free for children younger than 12. Call 302-656-6466.

"The Necessary Document" is on view at School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St. in Baltimore, through June 15. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 410-396-4641.

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