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Exposure: Tom Santelli’s first-place Diorama Series.

Through a Lens, Predictably
By Rebecca Shepard

25th Annual Photography Regional
Opalka Gallery, through April 11

Remember the coffee-table book The Family of Man, based on the 1955 Museum of Modern Art photography exhibit organized by Edward Steichen?

This year’s photoregional reminds me of that book—oriented more toward photographs of people than landscape or abstraction, with a traditional approach, and a straightforward, good-hearted feeling about it.

George Simmons’ Grocery Clerk is a portrait of a homely youth with a heavy unibrow and a peach-fuzz mustache posed in front of rows of bright-red Wisk bottles, his mouth open and slightly slack, as if stymied by adolescence, or by the glare of supermarket lighting. Each of the four Simmons photographs on view documents people living at a marginal economic level, combining artless but discerning composition with a social awareness that is not overly moralizing.

Sheri LeDuke’s black-and-white Workshop presents a wrinkled, cigar-smoking man sitting in a shed surrounded by surfaces laden with tools, paint and WD-40. Electrical cords dangle from the ceiling, and a row of windows lines the wall behind him, their blank brightness dazzling in contrast to the dim interior. The sitter is old enough that he’ll soon leave the organized clutter of his world for that blankness, yet his gaze is shrewd—a dapper bookie who knows his odds.

Mark McCarty’s black-and-white photos of a young child at the beach focus on surfaces of skin, hair and water, and are austere in their formal approach, yet tenderly absorbed in an ephemeral sensuous beauty. Tom Santelli’s elegantly composed first-place Diorama Series presents masked nudes in vaguely S&M poses under dramatic chiaroscuro lighting. Rob O’Neil’s interesting conceptual photographs combine self-portrait in panoramic scenes by the Mohawk River with a systematic attempt to calibrate the geography of the site and his location in it.

These are all well-crafted and engaging photographs, and they are only a few of the excellent pieces on view. But despite the individual quality of the works and the beautiful space of Sage’s Opalka Gallery, I left with a feeling of frustration. The overall show seems decidedly neutral, its energy compromised, tamed into a routine juried selection. And I can’t help but think that its flatness is bound up with the history of the photoregional and the current lack of clarity about its underlying purpose.

The photoregional came about as a kind of affirmative action for photographers. Back in the dark ages—25 years ago—photography was not considered a fine art by those who administered the annual Mohawk-Hudson Regional, the area’s biggest juried exhibit, and photographs were not accepted in the show. Rightfully, a separate photography regional was initiated, and has continued since.

But times have changed. Photography has steadily grown in experimentation, conceptual rigor and influence, and for the past decade has been among the hottest art forms in contemporary galleries and museums (and has long since been accepted into the Mohawk-Hudson). Many in the region feel photography is getting preferential treatment in having a dedicated show every year. Why not a sculpture regional? A drawing regional? What purpose does the show serve, now?

Perhaps one reason the photoregional has continued is gallery directors’ understanding that photography is a very accessible art, and hence attracts a wide audience. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue. The photoregional provides an opportunity for beginners to enter the art community, and for the region’s established photographers to show the progress of their work. The issue is not preferential treatment—there’s plenty of room for art of all media in this region.

The real problem with the photoregional is, like affirmative action, no one dares tinker with it—it has become sacrosanct. For most of its 25 years, the show’s format has been essentially the same. The hosting organization offers its site with little curatorial input, and invites a visiting juror to select the final participants from a large pool of entries. When gallery directors did initiate small changes in recent years, such as requiring potential exhibitors to submit slides, as exhibition entrants in other media do, rather than actual photographs, the outcry was so strident you’d think people were having sharpened bamboo forced under their fingernails. By now, the show’s deliberate, scrupulous approach is bringing it down. It has become consistently average. We see the same photographers year after year, and the same (rather limited) mix of photographic styles. The exhibit often does not reflect some of the more interesting developments (no pun intended) in contemporary photography.

More rigorous curatorial attention would produce a more compelling photoregional. As the location of the exhibit now changes from year to year, my feeling is that the organizers at each hosting organization should experiment with the format of the exhibit as they wish—and not be timid. A range of possibilities comes readily to mind: a show whose guidelines are dictated by the interests of the visiting juror; an exhibit with a specific theme or conceptual focus; an exhibit exchange with another region of the state. Why not? If the format doesn’t appeal to some entrants, they only have to wait a year for another—and different—opportunity. And the end result would be a more consistently challenging and lively exhibit. Let’s loosen the death grip on the old formula. Change can be natural and good. And sometimes necessary.

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