The works at Zane Bennett were selected through Center (formerly the Santa Fe Center for Photography) in a competition that included high-ranking editors and curators as jurors. These photographers might be said to represent the old guard. The works, with the exception of Justine Reyes’ austere still lifes, are all documentary in nature, and the photographers don’t attempt anything too flashy. If the images are manipulated, it’s not discernible. Instead, these shutterbugs, with an appropriate sense of moral outrage, go after a stories about tough topics.
Sam Comen’s series of farm and construction laborers in California feels especially timely in the face of the recent immigration law enacted by our neighbor to the west. Photographing the underpaid working class is a time-honored tradition in photography, but Comen’s bizarre mix of artificial light and sunlight gives the scenes a fresh, theatrical quality. Everything is bright and colorful. Shadows dart in multiple directions to give the impression we are witnessing tableaux. This use of reverse psychology drives home that these are not actors. The images do not preach, nor do they condescend; they merely depict a kind of manual labor many of us have no knowledge of and take for granted.
Not to be outdone in the downtrodden department, Dana Popa produces provocative portraits of young women who have been part of the sex-slave trade in Eastern Europe. The pictures have a silencing effect as the viewer’s eye inspects the subtle compositions for details such as bars on the windows. In some cases, lengthy titles go a long way toward filling in the gaps: They tell us the names and ages of the women and even nauseating facts about what happens to them on a daily basis.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Toni Greaves’ artful imagery of up-and-coming nuns is tasteful and dignified. Héctor Mediavilla’s series of Congolese dandies, known as Sapeurs, illuminates a culture of fashionable French-inspired dress. (For more images, visit Center’s website, visitcenter.org.)
By contrast, the artists on view at Skotia were handpicked from around the globe to participate in the gallery’s 1st Biennial International Photography Invitational. Their works are far more comfortable to look at, as the criteria seem to be less about the content and more about luxuriant and elaborate staging and wardrobe. The images are not inferior; they simply reflect a more personal and imaginative approach to pictures, and the organizers have a clear preference for the surreal and symbolic. In this way, the images may have more in common with advertising and cinema than with traditional photography.
Most of the works are large in scale, flaunting highly polished and intricately arranged sets. They are almost all vividly colored and feature characters or archetypes as opposed to specific people. Many of the images feature man/animal hybrids or composites that blend figures with other props and appendages. The thread seems to be an interest in photography’s ability to depict the curious or the impossible plausibly and straight-faced.
The bleeding heart liberal in me says he prefers the works at Zane Bennett, however, the aesthete in me is very taken with the magical mélange at Skotia. The former is akin to independent film, the latter summer blockbusters. Together, the two exhibits constitute a balance between things at which we ought to look and things about which we need to think.