Andrea Modica's evocative black and white photographs are outward and visible signs of an inward, sometimes haunting and haunted, grace. That sense of interior life being turned inside out sneaks up on you gradually as you work your way through 50 of her prints at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
Modica works serially, exploring a single subject — a family, a grove of apple trees, students at an all-girls' Catholic school — in a quasidocumentary style that is actually carefully staged rather than spontaneous. Probably her most well-known group is Treadwell, in which she followed a poor rural family in Treadwell, N.Y., concentrating on a young girl named Barbara, for 15 years beginning in 1986. None of them is in this exhibition but works from a more recent series, Fountain, are.
It's a similar premise; Modica uses a family in Fountain, Colo., to explore the human condition. She has a little of the Diane Arbus approach going on, the sense that normalcy is deeply subjective. Unlike Arbus, who was very straightforward in her presentation, Modica presents her models in scenarios that suggest mysterious narratives.
She has an affinity for children and they fill most of the frames in the Fountain series. She captures the light illuminating a girl's eyelashes and downy blond hair on her arm, in no way mimicking the vague creepiness of Arbus' work, instead infusing the child's world with subtle conflict. The family's farm serves as backdrop and it appears as arid as a moonscape. Youngsters, adolescents and teens are generally posed as isolated and disconnected. The little girl shown here is wrapped in arms that could be read as either protective or restrictive. Beauty and awe are captured in random moments: pears on a simple glass table, for example. Even when more than one family member is included, psychic isolation and loneliness pervade the landscape.
Portraits from the Umbria, Italy and Catholic Girl series are less nuanced in their revelations of character and identity and their stories are not as compelling. They also have a more photojournalistic quality which is true of many other prints here. One problem, perhaps, is that Modica's strength is in numbers. Nineteen of the prints in this show are from Fountain; only three are from Catholic Girl. Having the larger group enables her to establish with the viewer a thematic structure.
It's more than a critical mass issue, though. The family in Fountain is not in any way generic; they operate a small slaughtering business and Modica plays up the constant contrast between the living and dead in unique and personal ways. The young women in Catholic Girl seem like stereotypes.
The photographs' great technical appeal is Modica's use, in most of the prints, of the old darkroom platinum process that produces lush tonal gradations. The large-scale ones are printed digitally and I was pleasantly surprised by the subtlety of their tones, too.
It's all strangely lovely and a bit disturbing.
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A second, smaller show at the museum features Suzanne Camp Crosby's "Kid City." Crosby was Tampa's photographer laureate in 2004 and in this group she romps through the city with a vintage statuette of a little boy as her muse. Crosby and Modica may share an appreciation of narrative from a childlike perspective, but Crosby's mood is as different from Modica's as her use of color rather than black and white. There are some timely messages conveyed in several but mostly Crosby's having fun.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.