A dislocated sense of ‘beauty and fear’

Jacobson’s images intrigue, unnerve

Jeff Jacobson’s ‘‘Shanghai, China’’ at the Photographic Resource Center. Jeff Jacobson’s ‘‘Shanghai, China’’ at the Photographic Resource Center.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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Do we live “in a meltdown period, when old norms of politics, religion, and even photography are changing’’? Jeff Jacobson, who wrote those words, thinks so. He’s certainly right about the photography part. The 16 photographs in “Jeff Jacobson: Melting Point,’’ are a product, he writes, of the “curious melding of beauty and fear’’ that characterizes this meltdown. The show runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through March 20.

Melt or melting is a good word to apply to the look of these pictures. They’re often blurry and lurid-looking. Jacobson shot them on Kodachrome. His use of color can be emphatic, even ecstatic: color as its own emotional referent. The result is a sense of dislocation, one made all the more potent by the images’ size. The smallest are 20 inches by 30 inches; most are 36 inches by 54 inches.

Jacobson rarely situates viewers. They’re left suspended somehow, either with a surfeit of visual cues or none at all. Seeing, for Jacobson, is always about responding but not necessarily about understanding. A 2002 photograph from Shanghai is like a still from “Blade Runner.’’ A woman’s giant eye (from a billboard?) sits at the center of the picture, amid a riot of planes: tiled eaves, walls, lampposts, and other, unidentifiable urban elements. The effect is exciting and confusing: a mystery that simultaneously pulls viewers in and thrusts them away.

The single biggest element in this effect is it being just the woman’s eye and small surrounding portion of her face visible. We tend not to think of people as visual cues, but they often can be. Their presence within a frame almost always helps in figuring out what’s going on in a picture. Conversely, their absence from places where we might otherwise expect them — as in the world’s most populous city — can add to a sense of viewing unease. Jacobson takes this into account, and almost none of the representations of human beings in these pictures are corporeal beings. They’re shadows or reflections or statues. So many of these pictures are like stage sets without actors — or, rather, the viewer is actor as well as audience.

What would otherwise be the most straightforward image in the show — a photograph of the burning Twin Towers as seen from across the Hudson — becomes the most unnerving because of a statue in the foreground. It’s a memorial to the victims of the Katyn Forest massacre, during World War II, when Stalin had thousands of captured Polish officers secretly executed. The statue shows a uniformed man in flight being impaled on a bayonet. The bayonet is at the end of a rifle, but the rifle has no bearer. The effect is grotesque, presumably beyond the sculptor’s intent. Seeing it juxtaposed with the World Trade Center on 9/11 is profoundly strange.

That’s an extreme example. Jacobson has a naturally theatrical bent, and his best pictures manage to make expressive and intriguing scenes that other photographers would render predictably: a Las Vegas marquee, bison in a field in South Dakota, a dog in a darkroom, specimens in Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, a kite in Florida (which Jacobson shoots in such a way it look like a Stealth bomber). There’s an image from Beverly Hills, of all places, that’s otherworldly in its juxtaposition of a Classical statue with a darkling sky. The result is a dreamscape that’s part di Chirico, part “Dark Shadows.’’

For all his theatricality, Jacobson is as much realist as expressionist. These are straight photographs. He neither manipulates nor alters. In strictly visual terms, these images are highly arresting. Seen also in technical terms, they become objects of wonder.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

JEFF JACOBSON: Melting Point

At the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, 832 Commonwealth Ave., through March 20. 617-975-0600,