Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Fringes, Dignity

From the Fringes, Dignity
By Tom Wachunas

“A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound?”
- Charles Baudelaire –

“The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.” –Cindy Sherman-

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” – Dorothea Lange –

Dorothea Lange is the luminary photographer who gave us “Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley” in 1936 - one of the most poignantly searing photographs ever made of people living on the edge. Her statement quoted above resonates well with the theme and arresting images in the current exhibit of photographs by Jon Conklin, called “From The Margins,” at The Saxton Gallery in downtown Canton.

The quote also put me to wondering when we might have first introduced “taking a picture” into our vocabulary in reference to using a camera. There are many stories about how some “primitive” cultures saw the camera as a magical if not loathsome device that could rob a man of his spirit. “Taking a picture” was tantamount to a theft, or an assault. Of course civilized, enlightened folks attribute such perceptions to ignorance and superstition. Still, isn’t it ironic how we enlightened ones so easily measure great portraiture in terms of the photographer’s ability to “capture” the essence or soul of the subject at hand? Say what you will about clichés in describing creative processes, the simple fact remains that genuinely masterful photographers are genuinely masterful thieves. They steal moments from time before they forever slip away. Photography is indeed the magical, ephemeral pursuit of capturing essences.

Much of the imagery in Conklin’s collection here, spanning some 30 years, presents a slice of humanity existing in the often neglected, disenfranchised, and shadowy recesses of American society. The show is in some ways a bittersweet fanfare, a sonorous bell, tolling for lives lived in quiet desperation. In other ways it is a window on hope and resilience. Even at their most melancholic or brooding, interwoven with the loneliness and gritty mortality that we read in many of his portraits and scenes, is a compelling sense of real if not fragile dignity.

“Halloween Day, 1984” shows three scruffy boys - one with a girl mounted atop his shoulders, and two with smudged-on ‘masks’ of black makeup - standing around the rickety porch of a dilapidated house. Mounted on the wood siding behind them is a flimsy five-point star made of holiday string lights - an eerie counterpoint to all the peeling paint. Like several other black-and-whites here, the picture emanates a mystique gently reminiscent of bizarre scenarios by Diane Arbus. “Muddy Boy With Cord” haunts, too. Holding a frayed bungee cord, the gangly lad looks for all the world like a young, contemplative Robert Mitchum. Is this the wistful gaze of a boy who has seen far too much for his years, or is he dreaming of better days to come?

“A Visit With Mom” poses similarly intriguing questions. It’s a marvelously complex color shot of an interior. A woman stands at the doorway of a bedroom, oriented toward OUR space, but her focus is clearly on a serious conversation with the elderly woman we see reflected in the dresser mirror. The dresser top is adorned with framed family photos. The arm postures of the women, along with their concentrated facial expressions, echo each other in this playful but tense scene of frames within frames, lives within lives.

Another kind of complexity is at work in Conklin’s color images from that eye-popping, surreal mecca of stratified humanity, the Coney Island Boardwalk. Here is the photographer not so much as thief, but as hunter. He literally shoots from the hip, with camera on auto-focus, to give us delightfully tilted, rich perspectives, as in the man and woman walking with a baby stroller in “Saturday Afternoon.” The paunchy, bare-chested man sports flesh lavishly decorated with freakish tattoos, their wild colors strangely echoed by the psychedelic patterns in his mate’s blouse.

One photo that embodies the spirit of this show particularly well is the black-and-white “Oscar Studer, Talking Hands.” The triptych portrays a seated old man, leaning forward with steady, loving gaze into the lens, his hands larger than life as they sign… a giving. As if to say, “Here, have my story.”

Rather than just “taking pictures,” Conklin demonstrates an uncanny ability to recognize and somehow encourage his subjects’ authentic surrender to the moment, even as they know they’re being photographed. In giving us those moments – moving, evocative, quieting - Conklin is a remarkably generous artist.

Photo, courtesy Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography: “Muddy Boy With Cord,” by Jon Conklin, ON VIEW THROUGH OCTOBER 1 at 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday.

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