“Brooklyn Gang,” from 1959, established Davidson’s reputation. He would go on to a very distinguished, and ongoing — career in photojournalism. His “East 100th Street” runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Sept. 8, and there are shows of his work at the Robert Klein Gallery and Ars Libri through March 30. It’s not a bad way to get a head start on Davidson’s 80th birthday, in September.
The beauty of “Brooklyn Gang” is how the gang members, being used to posing in life, pose so naturally for Davidson’s camera. Their cigarettes and sunglasses and tattoos are so many props. Not that they did Davidson’s work for him. The very first image, with its artful yet unobtrusive framing of the Statue of Liberty in the background, declares how much Davidson will be refining the rich material these young people are presenting him with. Day and night, interior and exterior, male and female, group and individual: Davidson structures the images to create a novelistic density.
The other two portions of “Frame by Frame,” William Christenberry’s “15 Alabama Photographs” and William Eggleston’s “14 Pictures,” are so complementary they could combine for a worthy show of their own. The subjects are all Southern (Eggleston is a Memphian). Christenberry’s images are from the ’60s and early ’70s, Eggleston’s from 1974. Both men were pioneers in the use of color. The past chastely continuing on into the present is Christenberry’s great theme. An antically deadpan present bumping around in an eternal now is Eggleston’s. If all that weren’t enough, the two men are friends of long standing.
The title “Frame by Frame” is a bit of a misnomer. Films are frame by frame, and sequences within them are continuous. Still photographs, regardless of how closely related, never are. As Michael Wood writes in his excellent “Film: A Very Short Introduction,” “Every frozen frame can find unfrozen life as long as it has other unfrozen frames for company.” With the series in “Frame by Frame,” they’re kin rather than company. Coherence matters more — it evokes so much better — than continuity does. John Szarkowski, the legendary Museum of Modern Art curator, once wrote that “The central act of photography is choosing and eliminating.” Nowhere does that apply more forcefully than with serial works.
Serial works aren’t restricted to photography, of course, and there are several forms serialism can take. A work can be serial in extension (the same theme or subject developed) or iteration (the same image repeated). In that latter sense, all types of printing, monotype excepted, are serial works waiting to happen.
“Stone, Wood, Metal, Mesh” could have been called no less accurately, if rather more cumbersomely, “Lithography, Woodcut, Etching and Engraving, Screenprinting.” As so comprehensive a title suggests, the show offers a survey of standard printmaking processes. It’s didactic in the best sense of the word: lively as well as informative, sweeping as well as detailed. Any show that includes work from both Paul Revere (an engraving showing an obelisk under the Liberty Tree) and Kiki Smith (a diptych of a woman and her dog) is big on sweep.
As teaching aids, the show includes several display cases with tools and plates and blocks and other apparatus. The contents are both illustrative and engrossing, though less so than the teaching aids the art provides.
Romare Bearden’s screenprint “Carolina Memory (Tidings)” uses planes and flatness to provide layerings of memory and memories. The very slight differences among Arthur Wesley Dow’s three “Little Venice” woodcuts beguilingly demonstrate how subtle chromatic variation can be. The pair of etchings John Henry Twachtman made in Holland in the early 1880s are enchanting both in themselves and as explicit genuflections to Rembrandt.
Homages are another form of serial image, perhaps. They, too, come from a permanent collection. It belongs to the younger artist and consists of inspiration and influence and comradeship. “Stone, Wood, Metal, Mesh”? Certainly, but also heart, mind, eye, soul.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.