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Views of Boston as it was - and as it is

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  February 28, 2009 10:06 AM

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Callahan Tunnel Sign
"Central Artery demolition, Callahan Tunnel sign, 2004" / Photo by Peter Vanderwarker

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

For many years, Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker's "Cityscapes" feature was a mainstay of The Boston Globe Magazine. It consisted of a brief chunk of text about some site in the city along with a pair of photographs: one then, one now. The thens were archival. Vanderwarker had taken the nows. The pictures made plain how much Vanderwarker savors cities, this one especially.

That savoring is on lustrous display in "Vanderwarker's Pantheon: Minds and Matter in Boston," which runs at the Boston Athenaeum's Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery through May 2.

Vanderwarker understands that cities comprise people no less than they do buildings. Seventeen of the 35 pictures on display are portraits. Taken expressly for this show, they're of Boston-connected people Vanderwarker particularly admires. Each, he writes, has "reinvented the world in creative and productive ways." They range from transportation guru Fred Salvucci, standing with his two granddaughters at the corner of Hanover and Cross streets, to Harvard's Peter Gomes, shown in profile in full grand-magnifico mode. Other sitters include Campbell, novelist and Globe oped columnist James Carroll, artist Sidney Hurwitz, and developer Norman Leventhal.

Sidney Hurwitz
"Sidney Hurwitz, printmaker and painter"
Photo by Peter Vanderwarker

They're the minds. The matter includes the Shaw Memorial (one of four black-and-white photographs), a wondrously atmospheric willow in the Public Garden, and a panoramic view of Haymarket.

Oddly enough for a venue as tradition-heavy as the Athenaeum, the photographs hang unmatted and unframed. They're also big, either 24 inches by 30 inches or 30 inches by 40 inches. The combination of nakedness and size gives the pictures a posterish immediacy.

The immediacy part is good. The people and places belong to a living city, a Boston that's rooted in the present and facing the future. The past in Vanderwarker's Boston is backdrop rather than occasion. Admittedly, it's a detailed and lovingly rendered backdrop. His 1984 image "Salem Street then and now" shows two North End residents holding up a decades-old photograph of the spot where they're standing. "A hole in time," Vanderwarker calls the earlier image. It's a hole in the same way a mine shaft is: a digging deep in pursuit of something precious.

The posterishness part is bad. It makes the images appear more illustrational, or even commercial, than artistic. Any such appearance is deceptive. Vanderwarker's artistry is considerable. Sometimes it's bravura. There are four images of the Hancock Tower's midsection seen edge on - its slim, austere elegance accentuated by a glowing sky. They could be Brancusi casts, each iteration tempered to a different shade and effulgence.

Hancock Tower
"John Hancock Tower, from the MIT Boat House"
Photo by Peter Vanderwarker

Sometimes the artistry is subtle. Fenway Park during a night game is so irresistible a sight as to verge on cliche. Vanderwarker shoots it in such a way that a group of fans in a rooftop box dominate the lower lefthand corner, their presence humanizing what is usually shown as a near-abstract arrangement of players on the field and indiscernible spectators in the background.

That humanizing quality is evident throughout the show. "Minds" and "matter" aren't separate for Vanderwarker, but expressions of the same vital urban principle. Just as he places his people within a context, so does he strive to present even the most monumental structures in unintimidating terms.

A close-up of the Zakim Bridge's support cables makes the structure seem at once more matter of fact and more marvelous (those support all that weight?). A shot of the 2004 Democratic National Convention shows the Fleet Center, as it then was, empty except for technicians, one of whose headphoned face appears on the big video screen. The interior of Trinity Church looks no less gorgeous for the presence of a scaffold in the middle of it.

If there's an emblematic Vanderwarker image, it's "Central Artery demolition, Callahan Tunnel sign, 2004" (top). The future, in the form of the Zakim's towers and cables, rises in the distance. The torn-down sign nods to - or, in this case, prostrates itself before - the past. All around is the present. The photograph is no less emblematic for looking great. The only thing missing is people. Vanderwarker points out in an accompanying note that the contractor was standing behind him as he took the picture. "He was being paid by the hour. I worked fast."

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


Vanderwarker's Pantheon: Minds and Matter in Boston
Through May 2
Boston Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacon St.

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