One of the great enigmas of contemporary photography is our tendency as an educated audience to view it as a medium of derision. One of the qualities that has most often problematized the still image is the distanced viewer’s inability to understand the position from which the photographer begins.
This is nowhere more evident than in the exhibition of Chris Verene’s and Carl Martin’s works at Opal Gallery, which closes on Saturday, November 15. Thematically paired as exhibitions and installed as interspersed works, Verene’s and Martin’s works each challenge viewers’ preconceptions regarding the photographer’s viewpoint and what their intentions are when they bring those images to the public.
Verene has been documenting his family for 30 years. At Opal, we encounter a range of works, some now a decade old, that detail family encounters. Some are entirely unexpected. Sabbath (2004), for example, showing an elderly man bent over a kitchen table, suggests the history of the Jewish diaspora in America as families left the Northeast for suburbs and towns on the periphery of larger cities. Verene conveys this through the simplicity of lit Shabbos candles and a menorah on a bookshelf behind him.
Despite documentary photography’s tendency to fetishize and marginalize, Verene makes every effort to simply situate these works within the context of family, leaving the viewer to overlay his or her own interpretations. Images like Rozie and Her Mom, which has the text “Rozie and Her Mom Used to live at ‘The Research’ Hospital” inscribed on its surface, and Pam and Dan’s Trailer both deal with notions of home and shelter. Despite the implications of the former’s text, Rozie and her mom are incredibly engaging subjects, while nothing of Pam and Dan’s life inside the trailer, decorated with twinkling lights, is revealed.
By not focusing specifically on his own family, Martin’s photographs are even more varied. While Verene has the benefit of the long view, Martin explores the variations and vagaries of individual expression in a series of portraits that are also intimate and unexpected.
Car with Red Windows is a study in priorities. A battered two-door coupe rolls down the road, sporting red tire rims and a matching red window tint, its occupants bathed in a glow that recalls the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The car is both moving forward and a metaphor for moving forward—it emblematizes the specificities of cultural identity.
In Martin’s 1998 Woman with Car Tag, a nude strides across a lawn holding a New York license plate. What’s most surprising, perhaps, is that the naturalist is “natural,” free from the physical and ornamental augmentations and alterations that are such a part of contemporary culture. A close examination reveals that Sara at Home was taken in the same location, though subtle changes in background elements suggest it was likely not on the same occasion. Martin’s works are woven together with a narrative thread that is almost indiscernible to the casual viewer. Like Verene’s, they require both an intellectual and a temporal commitment.
Even Martin’s most formal works are somewhat disturbing. In Downtowners: Woman with Gold Shoes, the subject’s hesitant smile and averted gaze convey discomfort and, perhaps, a desire to escape. Yet she, like Woman with Car Tag, is beautifully, formally posed, recalling both classical sculpture and motion studies. As with other of his images, Martin has a delicate touch with composition and movement.
In many ways, Verene’s and Martin’s works are compatible. After an initial jarring experience of jumping from one artist to the other in the installation of works, the exhibition resolves two aspects of what is essentially a shared story. Rarely do artists agree to allow their works to have such an intimate dialogue. In this instance, it works particularly well.
Brett Levine is a writer and curator based in Birmingham.