Visual Arts

From the Darkroom Ages

"Stories and Souvenirs," an exhibition of documentary and portrait photography now lining the walls of ASU's Northlight Gallery, inspires confidence that classic film-based photography, as practiced by camera masters in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, still survives and thrives, despite the world's present predisposition to All Things Deeply Digital.

Located in funky, linoleum-floored Matthews Hall, Northlight is a fitting retro setting for "Stories and Souvenirs," which features the elegant black-and-white silver gelatin prints of Kelly Kirkpatrick and Vivian Spiegelman, as well as the quirky color photographs of Margaret Moore. The work in this jam-packed show embodies the down-and-dirty -- and demanding -- tradition of unmanipulated imagery on film. Thankfully, it's a venerable technical tradition that refuses to be intimidated or upstaged by the razzle dazzle of computer-created output.

The artists in "Stories and Souvenirs" share a number of things in common: all are fortuitously female, are alumni of ASU's MFA program in photography and use traditional medium-format cameras to create their work. With the exception of Moore, who has made high-resolution prints of her work using a state-of-the-art large-format printer, all have hunkered down in the darkroom, laboriously dodging, burning and sweating into developer to produce prints the old-fashioned way.

And all three, in equal measure, have lavished considerable energy on content as well as form in their respective bodies of work. These artists have wisely directed the greater part of any overarching artistic obsessiveness they might harbor toward their subject matter, rather than to their chosen means of execution. It's an investment that's paid off, considering the final product.

But that's where the similarities end for Kirkpatrick, Spiegelman and Moore, whose narrative focuses differ dramatically from one another. And, despite the trio's obvious preference for time-tested equipment and methodology, rest assured that what you'll see at Northlight ain't no mid-century camera club stuff.

In a series of pristinely printed black-and-white pieces, Kelly Kirkpatrick has chosen to memorialize a group of performers and American expatriate musicians whom the artist has befriended over the past several years in Portugal. The title of her series, Saudade, is an untranslatable Portuguese word "that implies a sense of melancholy and longing for that which is past," according to the artist.

Kirkpatrick's fascination with the complexities of Portuguese culture and history, tinged by that elusive saudade, is infectious. The artist consciously avoids the alluring confectionery colors and forms of stylish architecture in Lisbon, opting instead for small ancient towns built of fog-shrouded stone, labyrinthine streets and the lush romanticism of the Portuguese countryside. Against these, the artist introduces us to the inhabitants of a time-suspended world, like Celina de Piedad, a young woman, her face skyward with eyes closed, dreamily playing a pearl-buttoned accordion in a field of sunflowers; or Icaro, an earringed hippie type whose tie-dyed tee shirt battles with the crumbling hand-hewn stones against which he has been shot; or a driver rendered faceless by a shattered windshield, the intricate cracks of which look like antique crocheted lace. The sense of strangeness that infuses Kirkpatrick's straightforward images borders on the literary. Unbounded by the constraints of time and place, they are redolent of the magic realism of authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, in which the commonplace or quotidian appears unreal or bizarre.

Vivian Spiegelman, on the other hand, shuns environmental backdrops altogether, filling her frames completely and unavoidably with the faces of her sitters, who include family, friends and well-known artists such as the late painter Phil Curtis and ceramist Kurt Weiser. A displaced New Yorker, Spiegelman revels in the details of each one of these faces, which are unapologetically but affectionately blown up for us.

Often painfully and unavoidably intimate, Spiegelman's close-ups -- occasionally reminiscent of the work of Diane Arbus -- quietly pierce the psychological depths of her subjects. Unlike Arbus' work, however, Spiegelman's portraits lack the noir malevolence that underlies the often exploitative images of marginal characters, social outcasts and the physically deformed.

In Phil, an elderly man's face in profile reveals sharply focused blackheads, sprouting whiskers, liver spots and a fighter's formless nose. In Narcissa, we come face to face with the unsettling sultriness of a teenage girl with dark, unblinking kohl-rimmed eyes, while in Betsy, an elderly woman stares with rheumy eyes into the distance, wearing her cavernous wrinkles, large pores and salt-and-pepper eyebrows as well-earned badges of age and experience. Other portraits, including Theo and Lena, seem to cast their young, flawless sitters as mannered players in some imaginary Renaissance painting.

In distinct contrast to Spiegelman's face-filled images, Margaret Moore's color prints concentrate on the odd cultural landscape of that uniquely American phenomenon known as the county fair. Though now living and working in New Mexico, for the past 20 years, Moore, camera in tow, has traveled to county and state fairs throughout the U.S.

Documenting daffy details that make fairs and carnivals so offbeat and enduring -- and so addictive for those of us easily waylaid by convincing demonstrators of Ginsu knives and salsa makers -- Moore goes far beyond the usual staples of cotton candy, balloon-clutching tots and Tilt-a-Whirl rides (though Moore's take on the latter is exceptional).

Her colorful results, electrified by the pulsatingly garish palette of the midway, are a wry look at the bedrock of American popular aesthetics. Those aesthetics apparently embrace prize-winning vegetables, droopy flower arrangement entries that have seen better days, a life-size sculpture of a fez-topped Shriner in an apron that cheerily directs us to "help crippled children," and a tattooed pig. A postcard rack in the middle of the gallery, evocative of racks of souvenir postcards offered to fairgoers, contains Moore's prints of other belief-suspending imagery, like two aliens sitting in lawn chairs, a fake pony with its body parts conspicuously labeled and a rapturous child embracing a chicken.

Another of Moore's pieces, entitled Souvenir Views, takes the form of a black-paged, foldout scrapbook, with images printed on matte stock and held in place by vintage-style, black paper photo corners. The photos in this memory book are no less weird, including one of forlorn wooden shelves holding several canning competition entries behind a wire barrier. A lone light bulb illuminating the scene makes the eerie scenario look like the pathetic pantry of some prisoner-of-war camp.

Will pixilated, computer-spawned pictures ever replace photographs hand-printed from light-sensitive film negatives? Will slick nano-technology ease out clunky, tried-and-true film photography? Will artists be trading in their third-hand Hasselblads for screaming Coolpix 990 digital cameras any time soon? I seriously doubt it, as long as artists like the ones being shown at Northlight refuse to be seduced by the lure of the easily achievable image and continue their elusive search for the perfect (and perfectly printed) picture.

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Kathleen Vanesian