Sunday, September 5, 2010

I don't understand why Amy Blakemore's photographs are important.

Seattle Art Museum just opened a show of photographs by Amy Blakemore. There was a gallery talk by the artist and SAM’s Marissa Sanchez (a former student of the artist) last Thursday.

As an aside, SAM’s photography gallery is really a hallway on the 3rd floor. It’s a nice hallway, broad and with good light. I suppose the traffic through it is good since it leads to the Jacob Lawrence gallery. It’s a whole lot better than no space dedicated to photography (which is what SAM had until the new building opened) but it’s still a hallway.

I had not seen Ms. Blakemore’s work except in reproductions. Two photographs I had seen in a magazine are in the show. One is of an airplane on its landing approach. There is an out-of-focus tree in the foreground and the out-of-focus airplane is near the upper left corner of the frame. The colors are muted, mostly blues. The second is a photograph of a huge folk-art or advertizing statue in Houston. It, too, is partly ocluded by out-of-focus trees. I went to the talk to see some real prints and with the hope of gaining some insight her work. Unfortunately, the hallway was crowded and noisy so I only heard about half of what she and Ms. Sanchez had to say.  I wanted to ask her some questions but gave up.

Ms. Blakemore is an artist and teacher based in Houston. Her prints are square, roughly 20 inches on a side, from 120 negatives, some color, some black and white, all from a collection of original Diana plastic cameras. She was originally trained in “the documentary tradition” (which she referred to as the documentary tradition) at UT Austin but switched to plastic camera work while doing a fellowship at Houston’s Museum of Fine Art.

She noted that she does not work in projects and that is easy to believe. Her show at SAM is a few portraits, a few landscapes, a few still lifes, a few street photographs ….

Alas, I didn’t see a single print that I found compelling. I still fail to respond to the two prints I had seen in reproductions. Ms. Sanchez called out a portrait as one of her favorites in the show. It is a color image taken at close range near sunset in warm, nearly orange light. The subject’s blurry head and shoulders are a bit off to the right in the square frame, she looks directly at the camera.
Here is an excerpt from her artist’s statement (ArtDaily, September 5, 2010):

… Amy Blakemore compares the act of taking pictures to the experience of serendipitously gathering broken bits and lost objects during a long walk. …

She wanders around with her camera and photographs what catches her eye.  I do that, too.

Blakemore’s photographs have maintained a tantalizing sense of interrupted or incomplete narrative –

She wants you to be intrigued and make up a story to go along with her photographs.  I want that, too.

what at a glance may appear to be a banal mise en scène becomes with further inspection a mysterious and psychologically penetrating view of the world we live in.

I’m sorry but they remain banal mise en scenes to me no matter how hard I stare at them. This is my complaint with conceptual art – if the viewer doesn’t get it then there’s no way to get it.

Blakemore's work is in part defined by her embrace of low-tech cameras with limited range of focus.

What is “limited range of focus”?  Her work is certainly "defined" by the Diana. It seems to me that her work is about the toy camera as opposed to interesting photographs that happen to be taken with a toy camera. Nick Hansen did the latter – I own three of his prints. Diane Stefanich does the latter, too.

Her use of such idiosyncratic tools can bring a number of unpredictable irregularities to her compositions, including partially blurred passage and a compressed depth of field that, at times, becomes vertiginous.

What is “blurred passage”? What is “compressed depth of field”? I don’t see “vertiginous” in her prints.

At the same time, her compositions are rigorously composed.

I can believe “carefully” but what does “rigorously” mean in this context?

Through skillful printing techniques she coaxes a remarkably nuanced palette in both black and white and color, and she manipulates the idiosyncrasies of her photographs,

Now I can get behind this statement! Ms. Sanchez noted that Ms. Blakemore is a master printer and I find that very easy to believe. Making 20x20 prints from Diana negatives sounds like a challenge at best and several of the prints were wrung out of negatives that I wouldn’t have a prayer of printing.

capturing the ways in which memory at once records and distorts visual information.

Well, memory certainly both records and distorts visual information but these prints don’t read that to me.

I'm glad I went to the talk -- I think -- but I don't understand why her photographs are important enough to merit a show in a major museum.