The Allen Street Gallery mounts a breakthrough show.
Most of us take photographs in order to keep track of our lives. Those snapshots of the Swiss Alps or the last New Year’s party at Fred and Irma’s have little to do with art or ideas or self-expression. They are merely mnemonic devices to enable us to preserve segments of the past. Yet thanks to newspapers and magazines, we are all more aware of what makes a good photograph than of the elements of good painting or sculpture. Only an expert can understand bronze casting or acrylics, but when we pick up our prints at Fotomat we expect them to be in focus and correctly exposed, with no scratches, spots, fingerprints, or cropped heads or feet. There should be only one image to a frame and we should be able to recognize what it is. If these conditions aren’t met we demand our money back, and usually get it.
By these standards, the current exhibit at the Allen Street Gallery, “Photography as Art – Art as Photography,” is full of bad photographs – stained, mutilated, cropped, underdeveloped. About half of them deal with the processes and materials of the medium itself, things like negatives, enlargements, apertures and lenses, while others treat traditional genres like landscape and portraiture in such unorthodox ways that they seem more like fantasies than objective representations of external reality. A few deal with entirely non-visual experiences and could legitimately be labeled “conceptual art.”
Anyone who comes to this show expecting to learn how to make “the perfect print” will probably be disappointed. The focus is on image and content rather than exquisite technique, though there’s plenty of that as well. On the other hand, anyone interested in exploring the possibilities of the medium will find “Photography as Art – Art as Photography” inexhaustible.
Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the show features contemporary European photographs, most of which have been done since 1975. The roots, however, go back to the first two decades of the century, when people like Stieglitz and Steichen were vigorously promoting the cause of photography as a fine art. With characteristic imperiousness, Stieglitz maintained that photography could be considered art only if it emphasized formal and personal values. “Photography is a way of making inner feelings-visible,” wrote Edward Weston, one of his most famous disciples. It was something one did for oneself, not for a client or the general public.
Steichen felt just as strongly that photography should be used to communicate to large numbers of people, and that if art was largely a matter of vision and imagination, then these qualities could be applied to advertising or fashion photography just as well as to private material. For a while Steichen’s viewpoint prevailed. The flowering of documentary photography in the Thirties and Forties, together with the success of Life and other photojournalism magazines, seemed to prove that photography could be popular and artistic at the same time. The photographer was truly a witness to his times.
But as competition from television increased, and funding agencies like the Farm Security Administration disappeared, the situation changed. Photographers began looking inward again. Paul Caponigro continued the purist, abstract tradition of Stieglitz and Weston, while Jerry Uelsmann began experimenting with composite photographs that explored the world of dreams and fantasies. Lee Friedlander capitalized on amateurs’ mistakes to create wry, puzsion.’” He uses shadow and gesture to examine the question of a person’s relationship to his own image. When we mutilate or destroy someone’s photograph, for example, what are we doing to that person? Or if we decide to make a kite out of a photograph of ourself, do we in any sense fly along with it? What happens if we then take a picture of ourself flying the kite made of a picture of ourself? It’s the sort of labyrinth Borges would love.
“Photography as Art – Art as Photography” promises to be more provocative and controversial than any show in recent memory. It may also signal the emergence of the Allen Street Gallery as a major center for contemporary photography in the Southwest. Thanks to a CETA grant, it now has two full-time staff members and a regular schedule, something that was impossible with only volunteer help. If the current show is a success. Allen Street may also be in line for additional funds and more traveling exhibits. George Goodenow, Assistant Director, sees no reason why this shouldn’t happen. “There are a lot of very talented photographers in Dallas,” he explains, “but a chronic problem has been lack of exposure to new trends. If you don’t live in New York or spend a lot of time in Europe, it’s difficult to keep up. A show like this can have a tremendous impact. It can narrow the gap between us and the rest of the country.”
Two years ago Allen Street hosted another show of modern European photographers that drew a total of 100 people. “Photography as Art – Art as Photography” is larger and far more ambitious. The attendance should be a good measure of how far we’ve come.
The Allen Street Gallery mounts a breakthrough show.