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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

From Paris to China to space, a shift in focus

Top: Robert Alter's ''La Defense Series #15''; above left: image from Mary Oestereicher Hamill's ''regardregard: project china, chinatown''; above right: Abelardo Morell's ''North America.'' Top: Robert Alter's ''La Defense Series #15''; above left: image from Mary Oestereicher Hamill's ''regardregard: project china, chinatown''; above right: Abelardo Morell's ''North America.''
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 11, 2009
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FRAMINGHAM - Perhaps no city has been so exactingly, or lovingly, photographed as Paris. Atget, Brassai, the young Andre Kertesz are only the best known of the many photographers who've given millions a sense of what it's like to walk Parisian streets. Robert Alter's no less exacting, if far less loving, "La Defense" series does something quite different. It gives a sense of what it's like to endure Parisian office towers.

La Defense is a high-rise development on the western edge of the city. Looking like midtown Manhattan - or Alphaville - it's effectively decontextualized from Paris. In "La Defense," Alter further decontextualizes the development. We see it up close and impersonal. That may not be how its developers want it seen (monumental and impressive would be more like it), but that's its users' experience.

The show, which consists of 18 photographs, runs at the Danforth Museum of Art through May 3.

Alter has consciously violated the rules of architectural photography. A traditional architectural photographer, emphasizing proportion and bulk, knows that the building is what matters and makes sure it dominates the frame. With Alter, who teaches at Framingham State College, the building still dominates - but so as to subvert its visual authority rather than magnify it. He never frames a building, for example. Rather, he frames elements of it - a wall, a set of steps.

The pictures are large, a few as big as 48 inches by 48 inches, and in color. The color makes the buildings seem less oppressive. A bit of purple graffiti off to the side in a photograph of the Grand Arch, the centerpiece of La Defense, is like an oasis of humanity - much more so than the solitary man seen trudging up the arch's steps.

It's people who matter to Alter, and there's nothing human about the scale or appearance of these buildings. The only relief comes from the occasional planting. The sight of three birches in front of blank blue panes or a set of bare, pollarded branches before a white curtain wall is like glimpsing another, far more familiar Paris.

Abelardo Morell also takes something on a big scale, the planet, and frames elements of it - very substantial elements: the continents. They're the subject of the seven large cliche-verre pictures in "Continental Drift," which runs through May 17.

For these pictures, Morell has set aside the technique he's best known for, use of a camera obscura, which produces inverted images. Instead, he's coated glass plates with layers of ink, as he says in an artist's statement, "to form interesting tonal densities." When the ink dries, he scratches out lines and exposes the plate to photographic film of the same size. He then prints the resulting negative onto photographic paper.

These images are at once highly familiar (what schoolchild doesn't recognize the shapes of the continents?) and surprisingly dislocating (we've never seen them quite like this). They're tonally austere and texturally opulent. At first the pictures seem different only as regards each continent's shape. Closer inspection reveals various subtle, almost-painterly distinctions. Morell is ostensibly focusing on geography, but what would really seem to interest him here is topography. These pictures are about as close as photography gets to impasto.

Mary Oestereicher Hamill's installation "regardregard: project china, chinatown" continues the theme of foreign travel and unusual perspectives. Entering a small gallery, one hears traditional Chinese music playing. There are postcards, contact sheets, and a patch of empty wall with a bucket of pencils reserved for visitors to write "comments to send to the people in Beijing." Through peepholes in a scrim, one sees slides and videos of life in Beijing and New York's Chinatown.

The Beijing images were taken by residents Hamill lent her camera to. The Chinatown images show the Beijing footage being projected onto exteriors in New York. The result is a vivid particularity that nicely contrasts with the cookie-cutter sameness Alter shows at La Defense.

The Danforth's permanent collection has on display several of Elsa Dorfman's large-format Polaroid portraits. The Cambridge photographer's sitters are writers or artists (Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Michael Mazur). Geographers of the imagination, they, too, partake of travel.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

ROBERT ALTER: La Defense ABELARDO MORELL: Continental Drift MARY OESTEREICHER HAMILL: regardregard: project china, chinatown At the Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, through May 3 (Alter) and May 17 (Morell and Hamill). 508-620-0050, www.danforthmuseum.org