This is the 17th year that the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University has had its annual “Exposure” juried show, and it’s one of the best. Guest curator Alison Nordstrom, of George Eastman House, has chosen 10 photographers whose projects range from very traditional to very otherwise (doesn’t every photographer put negatives on the soles of her parents’ shoes?).
The most traditional project is also the simplest and most affecting. Tony Loreti, who teaches photography at the Cambridge School of Weston, photographs working people — a cook, a farm laborer, a fast-food manager — with the same seriousness and respect more socially elevated people would expect to receive. The 10 black-and-white prints from his “Working Portraits” series are smallish (5⅜ inches by 8 inches) but have an ethical heft that makes them seem much larger. Nordstrom chose Loreti’s pictures for the exhibition’s best in show award.
Garie Waltzer’s four cityscapes can seem a little like throwbacks, too. Photography has had a long love affair with urban settings. But few photographers have had Waltzer’s geographic ambition — Miami, New York, Shanghai, and Cleveland each get an image in “Exposure” — and she has a knack for conveying the unique vitality of cities.
The garden offers a very different version of human organization. And make no mistake, a garden is very much an example of human organization, of artifice applied to nature. That’s the point of David Wolf’s six color photographs. He shoots from above various gatherings of cultivated plants that he has placed in a wooden box. The images are at once formally simple, conceptually sophisticated, and chromatically lush. One of them, “Clover Tangle,” has a title even lovelier than the photograph that bears it.
The lushness of Wolf’s pictures contrasts with Mary Ellen Bartley’s four color photographs. With their cool elegance, they’re like low-key versions of Morris Louis’s “stripe” paintings. Instead of stripes, though, Bartley’s verticals consist of the open pages of photography books that she’s partially opened and stood upright. In other words, we barely glimpse the contents of the books — or even just see the pages’ edge. It’s an amusingly oblique bit of photographic self-reference, and the images are quite handsome, even if the conceit seems a bit confining.
Objects — all very different and all lovingly rendered — provide Nan Brown, Diana Zlatanovski, and Robert Moran with their subjects. Brown has a thing for trailers, both those that hook up to another vehicle and the mobile-home kind. There are nine of her black-and-white photographs of them in “Exposure.” She shoots them straight on, almost reverently, certainly respectfully, with neither Raymond Carver pathos nor ticky-tacky condescension.
Zlatanovski, a curatorial research associate at the Museum of Fine Arts, also photographs a single type of object in black and white: wrenches. As with Brown’s trailers, there are nine of them. The resemblance ends there. “Wrench Typology” Zlatanovski calls her series. Walker Evans once did a portfolio for Fortune magazine called “Beauties of the Common Tool.” Evans presented his pliers and tin snips and, yes, wrenches, in the manner of a High Church celebrant; they belonged in reliquaries. Zlatanovksi presents her tools as an archeologist might; they belong in a vitrine. She shoots them on a particularly stark white background so that they look almost three-dimensional, reliefs as much as photographs.
Like Evans, Moran has a bit of religious impulse for his half-dozen objects. He calls his series “Relics,” after all. There’s a real sense of emotional warmth, as well as rich visual texture, to his pictures of an Underwood typewriter, a rotary fan, a television with rabbit ears: vintage tech, one might call them. The most striking image shows a birdcage. Its formal beauty — a study in volume, line, and curve — matters more than the jokey title, “Free at Last.” The cage is empty, get it?
All these photographers work in varyingly orthodox ways. Mark Lyon is orthodox, too, though his color pictures look anything but. He’s found interiors — a dentist’s office, a medical examining room, an airport terminal — where landscape photographs have been blown up and made into wallpaper. The juxtapositions are alternately weird, disorienting, and comic. Lyon turns things visually inside out through others having turned things outside in.
Thomas Brennan employs the oldest of photographic techniques: putting an object on light-sensitive paper to create an image. Doing so, he achieves some very up-to-the-minute effects, with taxidermied birds as his objects. The black-and-white images are very high contrast and offer some surprising results. The specimen tag on one of the birds in “Flamingoes” looks unsettlingly like a straight-edge razor. With their exhibition stands included, “Hummingbirds” look positively blocky. In contrast, the fine fanning of feathers in “Greater Birds of Paradise” makes the image seem almost to be in, yes, hummingbird-like motion.
So what about those negatives on parental soles? Odette England grew up on a farm in Australia. It failed. Two decades later, when her parents returned to visit, England attached the negatives, which were of pictures she had taken of the farm a few years before. “The negatives were then returned to me,” she writes, “some so damaged they had to be pieced together with tweezers.” She made prints from the negatives. Visually, the results are raw, ruinous, besmirched. Even without knowing the technique involved, one is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the images’ intermingling of beauty and ugliness. Conceptually, England’s photographs work to shatter memory and brutalize the past. They’re “Exposure” at its most exposed.