FRAMINGHAM - A good biennial requires two conditions. The first is obvious, quality. The second is obvious, too - except that it isn’t. That would be variety, which in other contexts can make for lack of focus. The very qualities one looks for in a group show - the recurrence of certain themes, a consistent reliance on particular techniques or approaches - can indicate a curatorial heavy hand. And an over-curated biennial is more about the curator who chooses than the artists chosen.
George Slade, the curator of the “2011 New England Photography Biennial,’’ understands that. The show runs through Nov. 13 at the Danforth Museum of Art. He’s not looking for good pictures of any particular sort. He’s looking for good pictures, and there are lots of them among the 75 on display.
Slade did impose one stricture, and it’s a smart one. Nearly all the photographers have two examples of their work showing. Although one picture can be good, two can be good in more interesting ways. The very considerable charm of Christine Osinski’s “My Childhood Camera’’ hardly suggests the highly different stance of “My Father Projected.’’ The former is all about content and the photographer’s associations with that content. The latter, with its play of multiple picture planes, is an exercise in perceptual style.
2011 NEW ENGLAND PHOTOGRAPHY BIENNIAL
Sometimes the two photographs reinforce rather than diverge. A concern with human nourishment informs both of Richard Perry’s pictures, “Milking 2’’ and “Garlic and Sauce.’’ They share something more important: a particular appreciation for the enriching power of light. The light that shines on the milker’s back and the cow’s hindquarters in the first picture, and on the canning jars in the other, is enticement as well as illumination.
Osinski’s and Perry’s pictures are in color. Slightly more than half of the images in the biennial are in black and white. Mark Savoia’s very funny “Fried Dough, Just a Buck’’ would look too overwhelmingly weird in color. Comedy is the last thing on Susan S. Bank’s mind. Her two “Salisbury Beach’’ pictures show summer scenes whose grimness is a world away from Savoia’s.
Maybe there’s a third quality to look for in a successful biennial: interconnection. As with Savoia and Bank, there are unexpected chimes and echoes among many of these pictures. The lyrical delicacy of Johnny Tang’s “Senbazuru: Crane Trunk’’ is distant kin to Jordan Kessler’s “Guy Beneath Splintered Tree Trunk.’’ And the luxuriant curve of Kessler’s trunk is as beguiling as the snow-speckled bark of Tang’s. Both pictures recall Debora Vander Molen’s “Ice Storm’’ and “Joshua Tree.’’
The pile of discarded TVs in the parking lot in Brian Kaplan’s “Sandcastle Resort, Provincetown’’ is startling - as is, in its extremely dissimilar way, Meggan Gould’s two images of Viewfinder screens. Both remind us of the allure and ubiquity in this culture of screens, even those that are junked or obsolete.
Balancing the biennial’s variety is a consistent theme in four smaller shows at the Danforth. It’s stated in the subtitle of “Elsa Dorfman: Art and Healing.’’ Dorfman’s show consists of her trademark large-scale color Polaroid portraits. Twelve are from “No Hair Day,’’ her series showing the progress of three breast cancer patients. They are at once exuberant and moving - full of life but very much aware of death. That’s the healing part of the subtitle. The art part takes the form of eight additional portraits of such poets and Dorfman friends as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Robert Creeley.
“Jeffrey Bishop - ASB: Memory and Healing’’ consists of Bishop’s paintings on CAT scans. After his father’s death, in 1997, Bishop began painting on his father’s scans. “Initially,’’ he writes, “the effort seemed a very private gesture of kinship and catharsis.’’ When doctors ordered scans of his own brain done some years later, he painted on those, too. The concept is startling, and the images can be arresting. They look like biomorphic abstractions. Yet they seem emotionally weightless without prior knowledge of their history.
“Willard Traub: Recovery’’ is the photographer’s response to being diagnosed with blood cancer in 2005. There are images from his hospitalization: a bedpan, IV stands, an overhead shot of a hospital tray. The bland geometry of a circular covered bowl on rectangular paper napkin verges on the sinister. The images of recovery (dog walking, landscapes, pills in cupped hands) lack the others’ particularity and evocativeness.
Karl Baden responded very differently to his cancer diagnosis. Baden had begun taking a daily self-portrait in 1987. In 2000, he learned he had aggressive prostate cancer. The sum of those two facts is a 17-minute video installation, “Every Day: A Long Year.’’ It consists of those portraits seen in time-lapse form with audio recordings of conversations during the 12 months subsequent to his diagnosis. Baden talks with his wife, his daughter, his doctors, and medical technicians.
The effect mixes domestic tragedy and black comedy. The shifting images let us follow the course of Baden’s treatment (the impact of chemotherapy on his hair, for starters). Ear matters more than eye, though. The sense of intimacy that comes from overhearing Baden’s conversations is both shocking and absorbing. The dark secret at the heart of photography is voyeurism. But the secrets conveyed by eavesdropping are so much more powerful, even titillating. Seeing may be believing. Hearing is imagining.