Art photography doesn't get its due.
Because everyone has a camera, most people figure taking art photos is as easy as pointing the lens at something, uh, arty, and pushing the shutter button. We're a bit skeptical of art photographers because we think they aren't as skilled as someone who knows how to mix oil paints into the perfect shade of blue-green or wield an arc welder against a chunk of steel. All photographers do is take pictures. "We can do that," we say to ourselves when we look at an art photo.
There's more to art photography than pointing and shooting, though. Far more. For proof of this, check out the current photography exhibition at the Paper Heart, where the work of several art photographers (all but one of whom is a Phoenix resident) is on display. Some have gone beyond what the eye sees into what the heart sees. One or two are pointing at an "arty" subject and shooting, then glossing up their work with slick techniques and muddled artistic statements they believe will enhance the art quotient.
The strongest work in this show is also the most old-school. Joe Szkodzinski took his camera to the back alleys and backrooms of 1970s New York for street photography that captures revealing moments of reality. His black-and-white images, like one of a battered boxer contemplating his reflection in a mirror at a seedy gym, channel the gritty power of the city when it was still tough; this is New York pre-Rudy Giuliani, pre-chain-store invasion, and pre-loft developers.
Szkodzinski's photos pack a subtle punch. An image of a pair of elderly women speaks of the disappointments of Sunbelt cities and retirement. The women stand in front of a low-slung, orthodontisty commercial building straight out of the 1970s. Palm trees dot the near horizon, but this isn't the sun-washed paradise of chamber of commerce brochures. This is the suburbs at their dreariest and most banal -- all tract houses, parking lots and strip malls. The title doesn't indicate where the photo was taken, but it could be East Mesa or South Tampa. The women, unfashionably dressed and disabled by age, appear confused, disconnected and adrift. Their golden years are nothing like they thought they would be when they were 38, living in the Midwest, and saving for their retirement in a warm, sunny place. Szkodzinski shows in a single shot that there's pyrite in those palm trees and bitter disappointment waiting for those who believe they can cram a lifetime of delayed desires into their final years.
South Carolina photographer Jennifer Laffoon zooms in on domestic interiors for a series of images that are blurred, light-washed and full of possibility. There's a wall, here's a curtain, and that's a doorway. Maybe. The close cropping on the scene turns the routine objects into abstract shapes. Laffoon's photos seem to speak of how morning feels before you've had that first cup of coffee and put in your contact lenses: bright, unfocused and so full of potential as to be intimidating.
Dayvid LeMmon (can you say "I don't like my name and I'm trying to think of some way to make it seem more interesting and exotic"?) turns in a series of lovely, haunting images that speak of the dehumanizing forces of capitalism. It's an old subject, yes, and LeMmon uses predictable symbols like smokestacks, 19th-century buildings and power lines to depict the mechanized world. But LeMmon's work carries another layer of meaning that sticks in your head. In Identity Crisis #2748, deer antlers protrude from the head of a person wearing a gas mask. But wait, look again. The antlers are actually a shadow on the wall behind the figure, and the fantastical half-human, half-animal creature we thought we saw is just an illusion, a trick of the camera. It's a riff on how technology has eliminated much of the mystery in life and left us in an oppressively photorealistic world. It's also about how hopelessly disconnected from the natural world we've become.
Darren Burgett's photos use the sort of dumb gimmicks and clichéd symbolism that would merit a C in an intro art photography class. His Endless Pondering is a series of photos of women looking at framed photos of themselves looking at framed photos of themselves. The same image repeats itself for eternity. For someone who has never heard of M.C. Escher, this piece might be profound. For the rest of us, it's a cheesy retread.
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