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Truth, remembrance and respect: Photography by Jonathan Moller.

Focus on Diversity
By David Brickman

Photography Now 2003
Center for Photography at Woodstock, through May 25

The word that best defines contemporary art in the postmodern era is pluralism, and the current incarnation of the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s annual Photography Now series exemplifies it.

Ten photographers from across the continent were chosen by George Eastman House curator Therese Mulligan from a field of 265 who submitted more than 2,000 slides. An overview of the choices made would suggest that Mulligan was intentionally representing the diversity of the offerings, perhaps with a certain slant toward the self-consciously forward-looking.

Hence, we have out-of-focus work (a powerful trend at the moment), digital prints, toned prints, images mounted on metal and magnets, collages, and paired juxtapositions, along with some good old-fashioned gelatin silver prints. An interesting result is that the strongest body of work in the show, by Denver, Colo.-based Jonathan Moller, is also the most traditional in approach and technique.

It’s possible that this is due in part to the fact that Moller alone has five prints on view, while the others have either four or three (making 38 pieces in all). But it seems to me that work sometimes gets placed in this type of exhibition for its innovative qualities when its strength as art is perhaps less-well-realized. It’s also possible that the idea of attempting to show what is going on in the vast world of photography with such a small exhibition is too tall an order—one ends up wishing there were a lot more space devoted to a juried show with this much drawing power.

Among the artists whose work suffers from the presentation is Rockport, Mass., artist Paul Cary Goldberg, who shows three prints from one series and one from another. Though both directions are successful, they are so different that Goldberg was obligated to write two separate statements for the gallery wall, clarifying a rather muddy situation.

The singular piece by Goldberg is a moodily lit still life with a painterly quality reminiscent of Vermeer. Square, color and digitally printed, Blue Pitcher tiptoes very near the line that separates fine art from commercial illustration, but retains the subtlety necessary to keep it in the personal realm.

Goldberg’s other series, showing massive, ghostly vessels seen at dock after dark, is among the strongest work in the exhibition. He uses minimal composition and expressive color to create near-abstract images that evoke an ephemeral sadness from the mute, rusting hulks he depicts.

Also deriving inspiration from the aging industrial landscape, Albany’s Allison Hunter presents three small-scale inkjet prints on vellum; two of them come from her Vacancy series, which was seen in a one-night show sponsored by the Historic Albany Foundation last fall at the former site of Albany Center Galleries.

That series exploits the potential of digital manipulation in the most subtle and effective way I’ve seen yet, by smudging out the background and placing the leftover structures (the Tobin meat-packing plant and Central Warehouse in this instance) in an ethereal landscape that perfectly connotes the loneliness these buildings would feel if only they could. The extremely delicate black-and-white prints retain a classic photographic look despite being digitally processed and output.

A third piece by Hunter, taken at the Port of Albany, has muted color (whether added or reduced—or both—is anybody’s guess) and graphic black outlining. I think it would have benefited from having some support in the form of other pieces from the series—standing alone, it doesn’t seem convincing enough.

Yet another photographer in the show whose work is digitally printed is A. Leo Nash, a native of western Massachusetts now living in Berkeley, Calif., Nash’s work fits into the documentary category—he has been shooting for years at the annual Burning Man festivals in the desert of Nevada, where the concept of a ’60s happening has taken on gigantic proportions.

The four panoramic black-and-white Iris prints that Nash shows here record some of the large-scale creations that accompany this bizarre gathering of the tribes, and they are appropriately odd-looking, especially when juxtaposed with the surrounding landscape. But they raise an issue for me, in that they rely as much on the strength of the art represented as on the eye of the photographer for their content. Not incidentally, the best among them (of giant dominoes arrayed in the desert) is the only one where the maker of the objects depicted remains anonymous.

In a completely different vein, New York City resident Bill Armstrong presents a series of four large color c-prints titled Masks & Skulls. These very soft-focus prints exploit candy colors to give an ironically cheerful feel to floating, bloblike, nightmare images. But, like sugary treats, they don’t have a lot of staying power.

Equally ethereal are the three diminutive tea-stained silver prints by James Reeder of Napa, Calif. Nonrepresentational, these appear to be photograms (shadow prints), and they resemble work in that medium made quite a few decades ago by Man Ray. Apart from a nostalgic sense of novelty, it’s difficult to see what in this work set it apart for the juror.

Far more engrossing are four collages by Mary Daniel Hobson of Muir Beach, Calif. Though bewilderingly described in the juror’s statement as being “of the female figure,” Hobson is in fact working with the male, and very successfully. She combines layered black-and-white prints with found objects to breach the surface of the subject and develop allegorical scenarios.

One very small piece homes in on a hand as it presses a colored pin into a map, staking out a metaphorical territory. Another larger construction places a brass keyhole in the middle of the subject’s chest, delicately yet forcefully expressing the desire to see below the surface, to understand the muse. Her other two pieces are equally evocative—Hobson is a welcome discovery.

Other artists in the show include San Francisco Art Institute student Gregory Hipwell, who presents coldly calculated views of public spaces; Robert Goss of Somerville, Mass., who tears a page out of the book of Dada with his magnetic interactive collages; and Tinton Falls, N.J., artist Sandra Johanson, whose Reconstructions seek to refresh our view of commonplace sightings through juxtaposition.

But then there’s the stellar black-and-white documentary work of Moller, which clearly stands apart from the rest of this selection. Moller sensitively details the forensic and familial process of exhuming human remains in Guatemala, where people are still coming to terms with what happened to the “disappeared” there during the 1980s. Working as a virtual insider (he was in Guatemala as a human-rights advocate for nearly a decade before taking these pictures), Moller has captured images that verge on the exploitative but manage instead to be reverent—they honor the dead as well as the survivors, and could very well extend the stated purpose of the exhumations and reburials themselves, “to allow the survivors to begin healing . . . expose the truth of what happened and, in some cases, to seek justice.”

Based on the promise shown in these five works, his forthcoming book should place Moller firmly in the history of humanist photography, along with greats like W. Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey and Susan Meiselas.

Please note that the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s normal hours have been amended for the duration of this exhibition: The gallery will be open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5.

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