Welcome to another day in life.
I had the pleasure a few months ago of seeing an exhibition of photographer Charles Harbutt’s work at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ.
Although I am not a professional art critic obviously, part of my education requires me to be able to look at art and discuss it.
Critique is often so misused as a negative term, really it isn’t simply criticism but just somebody’s evaluation of someone else’s work. CRITIQUE CAN BE A VERY POSITIVE THING. Or it can suck.
As a photography student, I am required multiple times a week to stand before a class and show my work to my peers and instructors and have to take whatever comments they dish out. Sometimes I want to smack someone and sometimes I feel proud, either way though, I take something away from every thing people tell me regarding my work.
Even if it’s just to make fun of them behind their backs later 😉
So it is only fair that I get to dish out some of this “critique” onto known photographers. I have studied and chosen (for my own reasons) two images from the exhibition that I want to discuss. I hope you enjoy my thoughts on these…or comment if you have your own…:)
Woman and Train – Providence, RI 1976
Upon entering the Creative Center for Photography exhibition gallery the first thing that catches my eye on the wall is a huge black and white (all of his work is black and white as I came to see) print of this photograph directly on the wall, seamless.
There is a cloaked woman with her face hidden by a great deal of shadow on the verge of getting on a train with an incredibly rich, thick, brilliant white fog rolling out from underneath the train, rising up from the tracks. The fog is so thick that it makes me feel like if I was there I could step on it, like when I was I child in an airplane I thought I could walk on clouds. The rising fog also creates a smoky effect through the entire image making it very mysterious and intense. Many questions arise in my head, like is she leaving somewhere she loved? Is she leaving someone behind? Does she want to arrive at her destination? I get a melancholy feeling from this photograph, like she is leaving someone she may have loved but things just did not work out and now she is headed back to wherever she may have begun.
There is an actual flaw in the image itself caused by something going wrong in the developing of the negative and there is a slight imprint running diagonally across the bottom right hand corner where the train of the edge of the negative but instead of taking away from the photograph it actually enhances it. It is not distracting enough to take away any of the power or mystery from the image because it somehow manages to blend in without blending in and instead it acts like a foreground that slightly frames the image in a crooked way.
Perhaps this is the image they chose to display in the entry to represent his collection because like me, other people also agree that it his strongest image. Woman and Train is well composed, with leading lines, rich textures and mysterious shadows that leave me wanting to know the story but allowing me to fantasize my own story as well.
Collapsing Building – Hamberg, ND 1995
This image was one of the smaller ones in the exhibition and my first thought as I walked up to it is how much more effective the photograph would be if displayed about three times larger than the size chosen. Small as it was however, it was still poignant and interesting enough to attract my attention, obviously.
Collapsing Building shows a typical North Dakota plains setting featuring an open landscape and clear skies with a completely crooked and severely leaning little house that looks decayed and rotted and probably about thirty seconds away from falling over into a pile of rubble. The paint is peeling and worn, gone in most spots and the windows are busted out. The house is framed on the right by a completely vertical and straight telephone pole and the grass framing the bottom edge of the photograph is completely straight as well, giving the photograph with a collapsing house this immaculately neat framing which provides for a great deal of contrast in the photograph.
The most striking component and perhaps arguably the strongest part of this image is the little boy walking in front of the house stopped on the sidewalk and notably looking at the house. You can only see the back of his head so you cannot see his expression, but as a viewer I can only imagine that he probably looks astonished and very fascinated, perhaps even scared that the house might fall on him.
This image speaks to me, with its clean lines and perfectly, patiently framed composition and contrasting subjects and subject matter. It reminds me of the power of destruction, the loss of innocence when something is obliterated or taken from us as a child, the desolate and empty feeling of watching something decay and slowly fade away, for example your childhood.
If you liked these images, please check out the work of Charles Harbutt…it is interesting for sure.