As a concept, identity is so useful because it takes in so many things. It’s personal and individual: the kind of identity that’s inside your head. Life holds few terrors worse than losing one’s own sense of self. Identity is also social and civic: the kind designated on your census form or passport. The United States has no greater virtue than how (in theory) it makes civic identity a matter of choice rather than blood or soil or language.
Mark Chester celebrates that aspect of identity in his splendid ongoing project “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape.” Two dozen photographs from it are on display in the Mayor’s Neighborhood Gallery, on the second level at City Hall, through March 29.
Multiculturalism, as a concept, tends to inspire either mindless scorn or no less mindless piety. What Chester’s photographs remind us is that it’s a flesh-and-blood fact. Yes, multiculturalism is an abstraction, but it’s an abstraction that consists of people. Those people may or may not look like you or me. But if they don’t, then maybe they look like your parents or my grandparents (all four of whom came over on the boat, thank you very much, and it sure as hell wasn’t the Queen Mary).
Chester, whose father was born in what is now Belarus, has been photographing newly naturalized citizens throughout Massachusetts for the past three years. Working on the project, he’s met people from 160 countries — “traveling the world without leaving the state,” as he nicely puts it. Lest we forget, residents of Masschusetts don’t live in a state. They — we — live in a commonwealth. Chester’s photographs implicitly remind us of the human part of the wealth.
The photos are black and white. They’re a nice size, 12 inches by 9 inches (or vice versa): substantial without being intimidating. Some show individuals, others larger family groups. Chester tends to pose his subjects in a contextual setting: a home, an office. The captions include country of origin, name(s), birthdate(s), year of naturalization, current hometown. Mary Walsh, for example, is from Ireland and lives in Dorchester. That familiar-looking man in the background is her son, Marty. He works a few floors up from the exhibit.
Nearly all of Chester’s subjects appear happy. Most appear very happy. Looking at these photographs will likely make you happy, too — though thinking about them in the larger context of current politics may make you angry, too. Hey, there’s a concept: Make America Angry Again.
Happiness, except as memory so distant as to verge on reproach, is nowhere evident in Olivia Parker’s “Vanishing in Plain Sight.” That’s as it should be, since these 25 photographs confront her late husband’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease. The show runs at Lesley University’s Lunder Arts Center, in Cambridge, through April 3. Best known for her marvelous, often-luscious still lifes, Parker has a major retrospective coming up this summer at the Peabody Essex Museum, “Order of Imagination.”
These photographs don’t so much describe as evoke John Parker’s loss of identity. “I cannot know exactly what he saw in his mind,” Olivia Parker writes. “All I can do is imagine what I think could have been going on and leave it as a starting point to talk about a dreadful disease.”
Most of the images are unmatted. All are in black frames. They’re in color, but not the sort of rich color one associates with Parker. Color here isn’t so much invitation as separation. There’s a coldness to the images, a sense of distance. Many verge on illegibility. An issue of long standing in photography is the relationship between image and text. Shouldn’t a photograph stand on its own visually? No less an authority than Dorothea Lange disagreed. “All photographs,” she wrote, “can be fortified by words.” Parker’s here are deepened, explained, empowered. Seen on their own, these images can be inscrutable and off-putting. Seen in tandem with the often-lengthy captions, they become heartbreaking.
Thanks to human intervention, land can have an identity, too. We call it landscape. Half of “Sightlines,” which runs through April 7 at Lesley’s VanDernoot Gallery, in University Hall, bears eloquent witness to that alteration.
For a decade, Bonnell Robbinson has been photographing sites along what had been military fronts during World War I: farm fields, forests, mountain passes, a preserved trench, near Ypres, where Adolf Hitler served. Two photographs show Sarajevo, a reminder of how identity, as martial folly, endures even as it evolves.
There are 13 images here, all black and white, 20 inches by 24 inches. They’re unframed and unmatted, a simplicity of physical presentation matching that of the photographer’s artistry. The images express a sense of stalwart melancholy. A vitrine holds a dozen stereopticon images from the war, as well as, rather startlingly, Michelin Guides from 1919 to Verdun and the Somme battlefield: charnel-house tourism.
Richard Zauft, dean of Lesley’s college of art and design, also has 13 photographs in “Sightlines.” Five are from his “Eidolon” series. The word means specter or phantom. Partaking of the phantasmal, the images are evocative, atmospheric, perhaps a bit too self-consciously misterioso. The others are from Zauft’s “In Congruities” series. He has photographed eight unpopulated interiors and exteriors, some familiar (the Trocadéro, overlooking the Eiffel Tower; near the Leaning Tower of Pisa), some not. Handsome and chaste, the images convey a fine sense of sculptural space. Volume as identity? Something like that, yes.
THE BAY STATE: A MULTICULTURAL LANDSCAPE. Photographs by Mark Chester.
At Mayor’s Neighborhood Gallery, Boston City Hall, 1 City Hall Square, through March 29. 617-635-2368, www.markchesterphotography.com
VANISHING IN PLAIN SIGHT. Photographs by Olivia Parker.
At Roberts Gallery, Lunder Arts Center, Lesley University, 1801 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge., through April. 3. 617-349-8001, lesley.edu/events/olivia-parker-vanishing-in-plain-sight
SIGHTLINES. Photographs by Bonnell Robinson and Richard Zauft.email@example.com.