Tom Santelli’s first-place Diorama Series.
a Lens, Predictably
By Rebecca Shepard
Annual Photography Regional
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
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
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
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
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.