An up-close look at life in cultures afar
WINCHESTER - The main show at the Griffin Museum of Photography, “Three Concerned Women: Photographs by Susan Bank, Stella Johnson, and Rania Matar,’’ has been organized by Constantine Manos. An award-winning member of the Magnum photo agency, Manos is perhaps best known around here as the photographer for the mid-’70s multimedia show “Where’s Boston?’’
Bank, Johnson, and Matar are socially aware documentary photographers who take black-and-white pictures in foreign lands. They all also studied with Manos.
An able photographer, Manos would also seem to be a gifted teacher - certainly he is if these three former pupils are any indication. He’s no curator, though. The photographers’ work is hung discretely with an extensive artist’s statement (so far, so good). None of their images is titled or captioned, though - this despite the fact that in their books the photographers have titled them. We are meant to experience them as parts of a whole.
The result is that these images, full of incident and personality, can only be experienced visually. This does the photographers, the images, and even the people in them a disservice. The documentary impulse is only one strand in photography. But even in this age of image glut and visual overload it remains a worthy, noble, and necessary element in the medium. Certainly, there are formalist photographers for whom titles and captions are superfluous, or even detrimental, to their purposes. That is not the case here. There’s no way, for example, that Susan Bank wants us to experience rural Cuba as a vehicle for purely aesthetic concerns.
Cuba is one of those subjects that can make alarm bells go off for a viewer. Will the approach be ideological? Or perhaps overly romantic and sentimental? Bank avoids such temptations in her pictures of the agricultural community Campo Adentro. She neither defends nor attacks the revolution and offers up no “Campo Adentro Social Club.’’
“I had no political agenda,’’ she writes. “I had no intent to disturb life in el campo. I did, however, have to guard against drifting into a romantic vision of a way of life that on the surface appeared to be exotic and perfectly harmonious.’’
The key phrase in the previous sentence is “on the surface.’’ Harmony isn’t necessarily congruent with subsistence. Bank’s 22 images present a hard-worn life of rural work. Hands are gnarled, expressions downcast. A little girl stares into a cistern - not exactly a wishing well. A man carries a dead pig. Bank presents her subjects modestly, with seeming artlessness - until you notice how often she finds a window or door to use as a framing device.
Johnson teaches at the Art Institute of Boston, Lesley University, and Boston University. Her 20 pictures, which she took in Cameroon, Mexico, and Nicaragua are big - just under 2 feet by 3 feet. She shares a subject matter with Bank: hard, often grinding dailiness. Yet there are intimations of transcendence, too: hands pressed against the flanks of a horse; the delight on the face of a girl hanging upside down from a tree.
Matar’s 20 pictures (also big, 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet) show daily life and the consequences of war in Lebanon. She currently has a show, with considerable overlap in images, at Mount Ida College. Seeing her work juxtaposed with that of Bank and Johnson both underscores Matar’s strongly realist side and, in contrast, her poetic bent. A picture like “Juggling’’ or “Hanging Laundry’’ manages a marvelous balancing act between showing the situation its title suggests and implying much beyond the merely visible.
Monika Merva wasn’t a student of Manos, and she shoots in color. Otherwise, she could merit inclusion under the “Concerned Women’’ heading. “Monika Merva: City of Children’’ consists of 14 large photographs (about a foot and a half by 2 feet) that are part of an ongoing project documenting a Hungarian child-care institution. A sort of combination foster home and orphanage, the facility is called “the city of children.’’
Merva’s feeling for her subjects is plain. She shoots them in semi-natural poses, somewhere midway between formal sittings and candid shots. We get little sense of either individual personalities or the nature of the facility, other than a general air of dispirited (and dispiriting) unease. The photographs are unmatted, with black frames, underscoring the sense of unpleasantness. Each image does have extensive captioning information. While emotion is clearly what lies behind Merva’s project, so, too, is a wish to record and report.
Robert Welsh, who grew up in Brighton, now lives and works in San Francisco. So, unlike the other photographers at the Griffin, he’s working close to home in “Chinatown: Metaphor and Memory.’’
The possessor of a very fine eye, Welsh doesn’t miss much. Who knew that a street grating could be such a thing of beauty or that at least one car owner in Chinatown hangs a birdcage from his (or her) rearview mirror? In “Man With Apron and Calligraphy,’’ Welsh notices how the knots of an apron’s bowstrings, in the foreground, not only mimic the elegance of the curves of the brushstrokes, in the background, but surpass it.
The San Francisco neighborhood Welsh records can appear more exotic at times than the distant places on display in the Griffin’s other galleries. Unfamiliarity, his pictures remind us, has less to do with mileage than imagination.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.