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Sprawl calling: George Tice’s Telephone Booth, 3 a.m., Rahway, New Jersey (1974).

Photo Op
By David Brickman

From the Collection: New York, New York, through March 23

Wait Until Dark: Night Photography from the Collection of Jay Richard DiBiasio, through July 6

Chronicling Faith: Maksim Dmitriev and the Renaissance of Orthodox Monasticism in Late Imperial Russia, through June 15

Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass.

The cover of the current issue of ARTnews declares that photography is “the medium of the moment,” and a trio of exhibitions now at the Williams College Museum of Art provides evidence to support that statement.

Though the majority of the work on view is historic (hence, not in itself part of photography’s current moment), the curatorial graduate students who participated in the creation of each show are likely aware that their choice of medium is particularly timely. In fact, the shows are extremely diverse in concept and execution, which makes the trip to the free-admission WCMA that much more worth it for providing the opportunity to compare and contrast.

From the Collection: New York, New York, which has been up for months and will remain through March 23, includes a handful of pieces that are not photographs, but the core of the show is built around solid bodies of work by three important figures in American photography: Aaron Siskind, Louis Faurer and Garry Winogrand. In addition, there are six fairly disjointed pieces by Walker Evans and one each by Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Ormond Gigli, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, as well as an oil painting, a watercolor, a drawing, a lithograph and several etchings.

The premise of the show seems very forced: that, due to the Sept. 11 attacks, “the New York that artists will present in the 21st century will change radically from [that] on view here,” but that “on the other hand, the character of the people and buildings . . . remains as vital as ever.”

It is totally unnecessary to try to justify or explain the value of assembling these artworks, or to write text that appears to be trying to rally audiences around future generations’ pictures of New York. These works of art speak eloquently for themselves—and so, surely, will those yet to come.

Actually, the strength and sensitivity of Siskind’s, Faurer’s and Winogrand’s pictures is such that it becomes somewhat irrelevant that they were even taken in New York—like most great art, they transcend the subject matter to take on more universal themes. What makes the show work as a whole is that these three photographers’ works come from isolated periods in history—Siskind, the ’30s; Faurer, the postwar ’40s; and Winogrand, the ’60s—and that we can reconstruct these times in our minds by looking at the photographs.

All three are wonderful craftsmen with unique personal vision and a knack for capturing poignant moments. Faurer, the least-known, will be a very pleasant discovery for some visitors. He was rescued a couple of decades ago from almost complete obscurity by photography dealer Howard Greenberg and is only recently getting the kind of attention he deserves. The 16 pieces assembled here are as good a place as any to start appreciating his work.

Winogrand’s series of 10 photos includes a few of his most famous, but also has a surprise or two. My favorite is a 1968 shot (titled simply New York City) that homes in on a shabbily dressed but proud black man receiving a handout from an anonymous outstretched white hand. The camera is tilted just enough to throw the viewer off balance, and the edges and background go dark, surrounding the pained pauper in a halo of sympathy.

Siskind, best known for groundbreaking abstract photographs created in the ’40s alongside the painters of the New York School, preceded that work with documentary street photography, much of it depicting Harlem during the Depression. Seventeen of those photos are presented here, and they reveal the compelling sense for design that eventually would lead Siskind to remove all recognizable subjects in favor of pure form.

Most noticeable is Siskind’s tendency to shoot from either a very low or very high angle; though his subjects remain undistorted by his perspective, they are changed enough to render a freshness to the point of view.

For the exhibition Wait Until Dark: Night Photography from the Collection of Jay Richard DiBiasio, a small gallery’s walls have been painted a deep gray to set the proper tone for the 16 pictures selected. With a title borrowed from the cult-favorite Audrey Hepburn film, the show evokes mystery, but also emptiness and suburban bloodlessness through masterful sequencing of the installation.

Though not exactly a who’s who of recent photography, a number of big names—such as David Levinthal, Richard Misrach, Michael Kenna and Lewis Baltz—are included. The time frame is fairly tight (all but four of the entries were made since 1989), and the exceptions to that rule are presented in a somewhat isolated fashion to reflect this fact.

The result is that the viewer is given a coherent, nearly seamless experience of the collection as a story with solid pacing to the narrative. References to cinema are there in both black-and-white and color images. People are almost entirely absent and, except in the one truly odd picture out (a 1940s cowboy scene), are not the subject, at least not literally.

The success of the installation as a whole is such that I hesitate to mention individual pictures, but if I had to I would single out two color images of suburbia by William Greiner as the most potent (and a new discovery for me). Other standouts are Henry Wessel’s smoky-gray doorway, titled Night Walk, Los Angeles #28, and a 1974 image of a phone booth by George Tice, who distinguished himself in that decade with many fine black-and-white night shots.

But the credit for this excellent exhibit should go to the collector (a Williams alumnus) and the curator, history of art graduate student Patricia Hickson, for assembling a fascinating slice of American art that says something strong about American life.

In an even smaller space near the museum shop, one finds the dimly lit and somewhat clumsily titled Chronicling Faith: Maksim Dmitriev and the Renaissance of Orthodox Monasticism in Late Imperial Russia. This photographic study of the resurgence of female monasticism in the late 19th century is presented as an aid to understanding the content of a Williams College course on Russian history; that is, the 33 modern prints from original glass-plate negatives are not intended as art but, rather, as educational artifact.

Material that accompanies the exhibit says that Dmitriev was a pioneer in photojournalism and the use of photography as a medium for social criticism, but it is not readily apparent from these mostly staged shots why that is so. While it is true that there is a tremendous tradition of such photography in that part of the world, and that these pictures may fill a gap in that history for scholars, I found them to be well-made but rather dull.

Even taken strictly from the standpoint of study, brighter lighting and specific dates would have been a great help in allowing one to examine and appreciate these carefully rendered time capsules.


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