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Snapped: Painted Walls L.A. by Jeffrey Milstein.

I The Straight City
By Pam Barrett-Fender

Urban Visions: Photographs of City Life
Chapel + Cultural Center, through April 30

In this age of appropriation and manipulation, of postmodern fractiousness and multiplicity, in a world where realities are questioned and deconstructed, it can be refreshing to walk through exhibition of “straight” (unmanipulated) photographs. I don’t mean in any way to diminish the power of technology, or to disavow the notion of reality as a creation. But there can be comfort in knowing that, at some moment in time, in some place, some version of the image before you existed in real, three-dimensional space, and was experienced by someone who chose to convey it to you.

The Rennselaer Chapel + Cultural Center in Troy is currently hosting an exhibit of work by photographers whose processes honor the medium’s inherent and traditional capacity to capture a moment, to record an event, to present their experiences of life in urban settings. Urban Visions: Photographs of City Life was curated by David Brickman, a local artist well known for his own photography, as well as his critical eye and public voice (he is an art critic for Metroland). In his statement, Brickman asserts his intention to offer a variety of work within this traditional genre, presenting six artists with their own distinct visions, “not to force an artificial cohesion among them.”

Walking into the chapel, you are greeted on one side of the corridor by George W. Simmons’ photographs, and on the other, by works from Ben Palmeri. The commonality between these two bodies of work begins and ends in the topical presence of people in their native urban environs.

Simmons presents 13 color images of his neighbors in Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill, creating a sort of collective portrait of the neighborhoods themselves. The pictures serve to document not only the activities and surroundings of these people, but the moment of their interaction with the photographer. The “sitters” in Simmons’s work are visibly aware of his presence, clearly having interrupted their activity to engage his camera. This awareness, rather than striking a disingenuous note, as it might seem it would, reveals a wholly authentic human response. His subjects tend to take a proprietary stance, conveying a curiosity, and often a touch of suspicion, in their unpretentious gaze. This is the top note. Beneath the translucent glaze of that single moment, are clues to the stories of their rich and complex lives.

The subjects of Palmeri’s black-and-white photographs, on the other hand, show no mindfulness of his presence at all. These pictures were taken in the streets and parks of New York Ctiy, where the presence of a man with a camera is hardly considered worthy of notice. In fact, there is very little interaction between subjects within a frame. Each person is removed, self-contained, and essentially alone. In one, a man sits alone with his shoes off, bag by his side, and his head bowed. His dark form is dwarfed by a massive white marble structure, the lines of which hold him securely in his retreat, as he rests. These images each serve as a portrait, of sorts, of urban solitude.

In his cityscapes, Ron Force achieves another sort of solitude through distance and order, with an emphasis on the patterns of architecture, movement and light. His crisp black-and-white prints exude a cool remove from the untidiness of actual human entanglement, allowing for our imaginations to fill in. In his images of New York, and various European cities, Force transports the viewer to places literally far above and away from the bustle of the city. He shows us skyscrapers like they’re building blocks, and city lights like they’re stars. In my favorite, our vantage point from a darkened rooftop offers a lyric view of “State Street Roofs,” in which an enchanted strip of steep gables and arched windows is illuminated from below by miniature points of radiant light. It’s a magical place.

Anchoring the back wall in the main reception area (Fountain Gallery) are Kersten Lorcher’s small, distinctly vertical photographs. This placement proves to be a wise curatorial decision, as it gives us an opportunity to appreciate the work on two important levels. As you enter the space, you’re met with a row of boldly modern (shall we say neo-modern?) abstractions; lush fields of color with a strong underlying structure and a crisp sheen. The formal beauty of this work holds fast as you approach it to discover the images of four local industrial sites. The mint-green field becomes corrugated steel siding, the rich blacks and subdued grays become wet asphalt and cinder blocks, the soft smears of green, the building reflected in a puddle. Lorcher’s images are eerily vacant, leaving space for us to discover, as he did, their unlikely charm.

In the back room (Lounge), Curt Miller presents a truly documentary body of work, consisting of nine black-and-white photographs of Pittsfield, Mass. The pictures seem to represent a very small area of the city, including a central square, a bank, a couple of churches, and the Berkshire Museum. Each landmark appears in two or more frames, offering a thorough record of the architecture within its context. Human presence in this work seems incidental. While each picture reaches a fairly deep tone in its shadows, the lighter areas seem faded, as if by age or overexposure. The images, in their manner, their composition and their presentation, have a strongly nostalgic feel to them. This feeling is underscored by the title on the wall text, Pittsfield, Now, which suggests that somewhere, there exists a Pittsfield, Then. Miller does seem to have more to say than “Here it is.” I, for one, would be interested in a little context, to help nudge me in the right direction.

On the other half of the Lounge are Jeffrey Milstein’s eight large square photographs. These pictures are packed with visual information: rich, saturated color, intricate details and interactions between humans, animals, and their urban environments. Milstein’s inspiration seems to spring from the strong presence of brightly painted exterior walls, as backdrops for mundane human activity, and for their potential in creating narratives with unwitting passersby. There is a certain levity to this work, both formally and conceptually, a clever playfulness suggested in the subject’s unintentional part in the project, in the shallow depth of field, and in the intensity of light and color.

In the end, the curator stays true to his word by not dreaming up some artificial relationship between the work on display here. Instead, he offers a relatively broad range of possibilities within a specific genre, and he presents it in a crisp, well-paced, and thoughtful manner.


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