Monday, June 13, 2011

A History Runs Through It

A History Runs Through It
By Tom Wachunas

Historically, the potent efficacy of photography lies in its re-presenting a reality, whether literally or figuratively, forever preserving the essence of a moment, a person, a place, or a thing. The motivations for making photographs are many, but I think none is more compelling or universal than the desire to somehow defeat mortality and offer lasting proof of life beyond its time. To remember. And in our remembering – our savoring of what is no longer tangibly “real” or physically in front of us - photographs are often invitations to place something of ourselves in the frame, as it were, and enrich our present by re-entering the past. This is particularly true of vintage portraiture.

The current exhibit at The Massillon Museum, called “Faces of Rural America”, is the very stunning – indeed beautiful - culmination of two years of work by museum research teams, presenting 100 photographic portraits by Belle Johnson (1864-1945) of Monroe City, Missouri, and Henry Clay Fleming (1845-1942) of Ravenswood, West Virginia. The photographers each worked for decades (from late 19th century and onward) as their respective small town’s sole professional portrait artists. The show occupies two floors of the museum – the main floor gallery dedicated to Fleming’s work, and the second floor to Johnson’s. I highly recommend that you view the fascinating video that accompanies each exhibit, with interviews and observations about the artist and town.

Many of Johnson’s portraits have a more refined visual grace and crispness about them when compared to those of Fleming, who seemed to have been somewhat looser in the sharp-focus department. Additionally, Fleming used glass-plate negatives for the duration of his career, while Johnson apparently stayed in step with more contemporary technological developments as they unfolded. Many of Fleming’s images have in turn acquired an intriguing aesthetic element impossible to have been foreseen by him. Due to the glass negatives being stored in less than optimal conditions for some 60 years, the irreparable damage gives those prints a magnificently eerie kind of blooming frame effect.

What I find most appealing about this exhibit, though, goes beyond just the studio practices of the artists, or any comparative analyses of formal elements. Viewing the portraits collectively is to be utterly immersed in another world, really. There is an astonishingly diverse range of faces, walks of life, and moods present. Men, women, babies and children. Couples, families. Rich, poor. Expressions that are playful, scowling, angelic, demure, contemplative, proud, tired, enigmatic. Wondrous, lyrical humanity.

Another notable and thoughtful aspect of the show is the inclusion of four local artists (including myself – more on that shortly) who were commissioned by Massillon Museum Executive Director Alexandra Nicholis to fabricate textural interpretations of a photo of their choice. Call them 3-D translations intended to be “read” by museum visitors who are blind. But the invitation to touch those works – surely a unique and refreshing one in a museum context – is open to all viewers. And so it is that Clare Murray Adams, Brittany Steigert, and Joseph Close responded with remarkable skill and sensitivity in producing renditions startlingly true to the photos and visually enthralling in their own right.

It’s an honor to be in their company, and I admit to being somewhat envious of how they stayed so faithful to “actual” photo textures and accuracy of scale. My own submission took relatively greater liberties in copying formal proportions of the Fleming photo I chose (shown here). But it’s the photo’s amazingly complicated and dominating “damage” that wields such a poetic grip. At first blush the boys seem to be swallowed up in chaos. I chose to enlarge on their rising from, not their disappearing into, the ravages of time.

And in the end, it’s a similarly romantic spirit that’s at the heart of this exhibit – a spirit of persistence, of emergence. The people portrayed here, charmingly shrouded in sepia and misty greys, are long gone from our midst. But through the tender art of their portrayers, these echoes of an era enter and adorn our awareness - if only for the time it takes to view this show – like gentle ghosts.

Photo: Portrait of Two Boys, one partially obscured, by Henry Clay Fleming. On view at Massillon Museum THROUGH OCTOBER 9, 121 Lincoln Way E. in downtown Massillon. Viewing hours are 9:30 a.m to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday, and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday (330) 833 - 4061
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