Sunday, January 21, 2018
Arts

Summer shows evocative at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

TAMPA

Nothing links the three photographers in "New Visions: Contemporary Artist Series" at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts except that they're contemporary. No flow or transitions between work by Sissi Farassat, Edmund D. Fountain and Jim Reynolds mostly nullifies the conceit of a fully formed exhibition. That each has different methodologies and point of view isn't enough for meaningful comparisons.

So when looking and enjoying, take each without the others. The three groups are vivid and evocative in their own right.

Farassat's are the most visually arresting. Her photographs are embedded in backdrops of sequins and Swarovski crystals that are sewn to create shimmering patterns that shift as you move around the work. Isolating the cropped photograph removes the image from its context, and the casual nature of them contrasts with the formality of the vivid, hand-stitched surrounds that seem inspired by the traditional Persian rugs from Iran, the country of her birth.

In Costina I, for example, crystals are arranged in an ombre pattern in which the shading goes from pale to dark. Because of their dimension, they almost envelope the photograph of a seated young woman. In Andrea, though, a woman who is cuffed and gagged appears to fall toward a flat surface of silver sequins sewn in subtle circles that flash and mutate like a gray sea as you look at it from different angles.

Reynolds infuses his work with a different form of visual drama. The series at the museum looks at famous or architecturally arresting buildings in New York. Light, reflective qualities and patterns in these color-saturated digital prints give us an enhanced appreciation of the details of them and sometimes their relationship to their surrounds and sometimes the people in and around them.

The vast Time Warner Center in New York is photographed from an upper floor in the retail atrium. It's a viewing area looking outside that, because Reynolds shoots into the light, is dark. Unpeopled, it becomes a meditative space above and away from the bustle of Columbus Circle we see beyond. That perception of solitude is, of course, deceptive. It is a subtle manipulation reminding us that photographs, like our brains, process and edit, and what we see is always subjective.

Fountain is a photojournalist and colleague of mine at the Tampa Bay Times. He's represented by a collection from a series titled For Their Own Good, a multipart investigation, beginning in 2009, about abuses at the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. They are, perforce, documentary, and we need the wall texts explaining the subjects and the story. Like all good photojournalism, they tell the story visually, needing only skeletal bits of written information. Most were taken in 2009, but one of the most striking is recent, that of a ghostly silhouette standing in the hallway of the now-closed school.

• • •

Edward S. Curtis is featured in a second exhibition at the museum. Curtis (1868-1952) was a visionary photographer whose life's mission was to document the Indian tribes of North America before, he believed, their way of life was completely lost. The North American Indian would take more than 20 years and when completed consisted of 20 volumes of text with more than 1,500 photogravures.

It wasn't a commercial success and was largely forgotten by the time of his death. Rediscovered in the 1970s, it was hailed as a masterpiece of cultural observation and preservation. But he is also criticized for manipulating and even staging the subjects, in some cases dressing them for drama rather than authenticity, for example, or promoting the idea of the Noble Savage, which today is considered culturally condescending. But even most critics agree that he wasn't trying to exploit the Indians but rather wanted to emphasize the value of their way of life and its fragility.

Seventeen photogravures from a private collection are in this show. They come from Curtis' work with tribes of the Southwest such as the Apache and Navajo.

The medium gives them the patina of the past, and no doubt reality was more complicated. Still, it's hard not to romanticize the men, women and children seen weaving, walking, harvesting, riding and storytelling their way across vast canyons and plains. Curtis makes us care about them and wish we could have known them ourselves.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

 
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