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Impermanent: Laura Gail Tyler’s Untitled (2007).

Local Vision

By Nadine Wasserman

31st Annual Photography Regional

Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany, through April 12

If you wear eyeglasses you know what it is like to have the world suddenly snap into focus. The moment when your vision goes from blurry to clear can be a revelation.

As I stood in front of Stu Sherman’s photographs I thought about this and about the similarities and differences between the human eye and the camera. Sherman’s images are blurry around the edges with one area of clear focus in the middle. This is much like how we see. The interplay between what is clear and what is out-of-focus is miraculously translated by our brains into three dimensions. Sherman’s images, on the other hand, collapse foreground, middle ground, and background, which gives them a surreal quality.

Our affinity to the photographic medium has much to do with the fact that the camera mimics the mechanics of our eyes, and the photograph is closely linked to our concepts of reality and memory. Inherent in the notion of a photograph is its “truth.” However, since its invention, the veracity of a photograph and the nature of photography itself have been the source of much artistic and philosophical experimentation and inquiry.

The closest thing to straight photography in the 31st Annual Photography Regional is the work of Roy Arenella. But Arenella is less interested in the “reality” of a scene than in its interpretive possibilities. Some of his images capture interesting visual moments, such as a group of marquee letters strewn across the sidewalk or a quirky billboard. Others explore his role as photographer. For Photographer in Landscape he has rubber stamped a cartoony camera figure strolling onto the scene.

While Arenella uses black & white, Colleen Cox uses vivid colors to capture an intimate and personal tableau. Her melancholy images evoke nostalgia and loss. For Ascension, Cox uses a similar strategy to Sherman and blurs the edges of the photograph. This gives it a more ethereal and reflective quality.

Like Sherman and Cox, Liz Blum uses blurriness to great effect. But rather than give us a point of focus, her images are entirely blurred. By not giving us a clear image, Blum challenges our expectations and teases us with delicacies we can just barely perceive. Rather than seduce us with straightforward images of cake, strawberries, and petit fours, Blum offers us a new kind of beauty.

Also challenging our expectations are Catherine Chalmers’ giant flies. Whereas Blum obscures our vision, Chalmers gives us the fly in explicit detail. Generally maligned, these insects are presented to us in a visually seductive way. The minutest details of their bodies are visible against a stark white background. Rather than repugnant, these flies are transformed by their anthropomorphic arrangements. There is an interesting connection between Chalmers’s Group Portrait and Melinda McDaniel’s Almost/Never Together. They are not similar in style but rather in subject matter, as they both reveal something about group dynamics.

McDaniel is the only photographer in the exhibition to incorporate sculptural elements. She slices up and reconfigures photographs to create new and unexpected images, often attached to a wooden substrate with pins. For A Paragraph, she has sliced up unprocessed photographic paper and lined the slices up along wooden shelves in order to explore the potential of the photo paper to make an image.

While McDaniel blends sculpture and photography, both Kenneth Ragsdale and Laura Gail Tyler create sculptural elements that they then photograph. Ragsdale uses his photographic images to explore the vicissitudes of memory. His paper campers, barns, and landscapes are lit with a theatrical yellow light. Tyler constructs paper houses, sand houses, and houses made of cards. She photographs them in the process of being destroyed by fire or waves. Her interest in the environment is shared by Justin Baker who, like Sherman, photographs the places that have been neglected.

Robert Cartmell, on the other hand, photographs non-neglected spaces. But his trees and manicured lawns are far from serene. His black & white images exude an other-worldly, illusory, and ghostly quality. Daniel Goodwin’s faux scientific depictions of surveillance and espionage equipment are similarly discomfiting. While his depictions of contraptions such as Dental Bridge Transceiver and Eyeglasses (Razor Temple-Arm) at first feel violent and invasive, their absurdity renders them fairly innocuous.

Goodwin’s catalogue of spy contraptions compares and contrasts Tara Fracalossi’s archive of personal moments that capture “the special, the everyday, the nothing.” Fracalossi considers each photograph a reproduction of the circumstances of its own making. It is an exploratory exercise that resonates throughout the exhibition.

While the guiding principle to this exhibition is very broad, the work included is strong and compelling. It demonstrates what a show of primarily regional artists can look like when the organizer has a good eye.

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