|'Dyanne'. Beth Yarnelle Edwards|
Photographs hold a special fascination for everybody, the world over. The facility to grasp a moment as it is; capturing the monumentality or poignancy of the moment with just a click of the camera is irresistible. Digital technologies have made this simpler than ever before, so what sets apart the artist-photographer from a doting parent or enthusiastic tourist?
Photography that engages beyond familial or familiar memories is about the quality of observation a photographer imbues their work with. It’s the measure of a photographer’s engagement with self and subject; exploring facets of looking which draws and sustains a viewer’s attention. This quality of intimacy and engagement noticeably pervaded almost all the images in the exhibition ‘American Psyche’ curated by Janet Delaney, at Religare Art.
|'Paul' - Susan Felter|
In addition, what made this exhibition a unique experience, was that the earlier construct of the West looking at the East with their limitations of knowing and desire to know, based solely on the narrow self interest of commerce and dominion, was turned on its head. The on-going shift in world economic power with its implications of change in how, once dominant cultures are now viewed by those they dominated, was evinced as we in New Delhi were invited to look at the ‘American’ psyche through the eyes of ‘American’ photographers.
The selection by Delaney featured some known, predictable icons such as the ‘Cowboy’ from Susan Felter’s portfolio ‘Rodeo Work’, as well as lesser known facets of contemporary daily life, exquisitely captured by Beth Yarnelle Edwards in ‘Suburban Dreams’. This was added to by Brian Ulrich’s statement on the “American love affair with shopping on credit” and subsequent bankruptcy. Chris Churchill’s black and white images highlighted ‘Faith’ presenting a broad spectrum which included various organized religions and also spiritual practices. Leon Borensztein‘s series of commissioned portraits also in black and white, recorded ‘telling details’ and Jim Goldberg’s ‘Teenage’ narrative added a touch of authenticity to the presented socio-political commentary. Issues of governance and civic mindedness also formed part of this montage where Paul Shambroom brought us a close-up view of the American public servant. Mike Steinmetz stealthily captured candid moments of unknown people and Todd Hido kept driving and looking, photographing the outside of houses at night with people at home. Indicated not by silhouettes of them, but implied by the glare or soft haze of electric light shining through windows, that were curtained and sometimes not. He captured a sense of the quietude of night-life, imbuing it with a sense of knowing, despite the physical displacement of him being outside the frame.
In this vast panorama of life in America, it was the images by Beth Yarnelle Edwards, portraying the everydayness of suburban living with precision and sensitivity that left a lasting impression. These photographs needed no explanation. They had a timeless, universal quality. Akin to still-life painting of early Dutch masters, Edwards’s keen sense of observation posed not a critical view but provided a perceptive document. In ‘Dyanne’ [1998, 19/25, chromogenic print, 20x24 in], the quality of light and semi-completeness of attire, nuanced a level of tension. There was a sense of expectation, yet also of fatigue and on looking more intently, one noticed that the dinner was not yet over. The table was still set. It was not a sense of let down after the event, but a kind of resigned expectancy after long hours of preparation, that emerged. Such details reveal more than just a stereotypical view of the mundane. In another photograph, she captures ‘Susan’ at work, [2002, 5/25, chromogenic print, 20x24 in] her bejewelled hand polishing the glass top of a dining table. An Andy Warhol print hangs behind her and a large urn of artificial Hydrangeas and exotic Orchids rests on the centre of the table. A William Morris look-alike design on the upholstery of dining room chairs completes the picture of a home where everything is neat, clean, carefully chosen and meticulously arranged; a life-style of successful people residing in the suburbs. Edward’s success lies not only in capturing evocative everyday moments but also in the lack of self-consciousness with which each person appears in the frame.
Delaney presented a wide panorama, attempting to cover the breadth of a vast and diverse culture. This however detracted from the subtler perspective each photographer had presented. At times one felt that this ‘psyche’ was orchestrated to present more of a politically correct statement rather than a heartfelt one. This portrayal may not have been conclusive or entirely convincing, but in presenting a view through the lens of American photographers, of nuances most of us here would not be privy to, it opened up another window of perception.