The new Jules Aarons show at Gallery Kayafas consists of 13 black-and-white photographs that Aarons took in either the North End or West End in the late ’40s and early ’50s. It runs through April 4, as does the other photography show at Kayafas, “Bill Yates: Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink, 1972-73.”
The Aarons pictures offer a kind of double time machine. Their vintage views of Boston from nearly 70 years ago are a window on the past. They also hark back to a different era in the art world. The photographs appeared in a solo show Aarons had at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1951. Back then, the ICA was at 138 Newbury St. The building is now the site of an American Apparel and a hair salon. A very different era, no?
One of the wonders of the Aarons show is how relatively little the North End has changed. The West End, of course, is a different story. Thanks to air conditioning and television, social life is led far less outdoors. But the buildings and general atmosphere look familiar. More important, they feel familiar. One of Aarons’s gifts was for capturing the emotional tenor of a place or a social situation as well as its appearance. That’s an even bigger wonder.
While studying for his master’s degree at Boston University after World War II, Aarons would spend his free time taking his Rolleiflex, he once said, “to document Boston, its streets and its people, while also developing my own style.”
It’s telling that he mentioned subject first — and photographer second. Aarons was putting himself at the service of the people and places he photographed. It’s no less telling that, having emphasized subject, he didn’t leave out style. The excellence of Aarons’s eye is evident in a photograph like “Boys in the North End, Boston.” The splay of left hands is as elegant as the arrangement of behinds is comic. The very considerable appeal of these photographs owes something to sociology, something to anthropology, and something to history. Don’t overlook how much they also owe to visual choreography. Content may be what attracts attention. Form is what keeps it.
The images are small. The biggest is only 9 inches by 7½ inches. Their size lends them a companionable intimacy. Yet smallness runs a risk. The scenes that drew his eye tended to teem: with people, objects, structures, interactions. Where there’s a lot going on, a lot can get lost. Aarons trusted that the details and compositions were strong enough to remain distinct even when printed small. He was right to trust his eye. They do.
The black-and-white photographs Bill Yates took four decades ago in Tampa show very different social interactions and a very differenent social landscape from those Aarons presents.
The Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink is a hangout, a place to go, to see and be seen — but it’s a site, somewhere people gather, not a place, somewhere people live. Everywhere in these images there’s a sense of dislocation. Nothing could be more alien to Aarons’ Boston. This slice of Tampa offers all the charm of roller derby, to pick a suitable analogy, with none of the entertainment value. It’s a kind of purgatory, its fun-seeking purpose making it feel all the bleaker. But bleakness is the point. This is a somewhere that’s nowhere. Maybe it’s more limbo than purgatory.
The scene at the rink isn’t sexy, but it’s highly sexualized. Put it this way: A lit match wouldn’t explode, but the smell of sulfur would be drowned by musk. Even if they don’t know it, the teens hanging out here are working overtime endocrinologically. Yates’s pictures recall those in Larry Clark’s celebrated (or notorious) book “Tulsa,” taken during the same period. The vibe is similarly lurid, the teens similarly adrift, though Yates’s images aren’t explicit as Clark’s are. In a weird way, that can make Yates’s that much more unsettling. The sleep of reason produces monsters? So does the wakening of extrapolation.
A more accurate comparison would be to describe Yates as Clark crossed with Weegee. It’s Yates’s use of flash that evokes that tabloid master, but also the whiff of crime and violence, albeit without the actual fact of it – yet. Bad things seem on the verge of happening in every image here. The ubiquity of cigarettes is the least of it. A girl with a Jennifer Lawrence scowl holds one as if she’s about to light a fuse. Even something as innocent as a girl (9? 10?) swigging from a bottle of Pepsi looks unsettling. The image chimes with one hanging nearby of a bare-chested boy (15? 16?) with a bottle of peppermint schnapps tucked in his waistband. In a few years will he move to Los Angeles, become a street hustler and pose for Philip-Lorca diCorcia?
Part of the charm and satisfaction of Aarons’s pictures is the sense that the people in them aren’t going anywere and don’t want to. Part of the unease of Yates’s pictures is the sense that the people in them are desperate to do so.
Jules Aarons’s 1951 Institute
of Contemporary Art Exhibit
Sweetheart Roller Skating
At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., Suite 37, through April 4, 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.