Friday, December 20, 2013


Eugene is not exactly a hotspot for strong photo exhibits. There are a few venues around town that regularly show photographs, but they generally focus on local artists. Which is fine. After all Think globally, act locally was the Whole Earth motto growing up, and it still has its place. The problem with photo shows in Eugene is they're think locally, act locally. It's a very provincial vibe in some ways.

But beyond Eugene's myopic focus is a larger problem. The photography here is locked in a past era, specifically the f/64 movement which dominated photography in the mid 20th century. Even though photography has radically evolved over the past several decades, that change hasn't really penetrated the scene here. Photographers may have traded in their view cameras for Phase-One backs but they're still shooting the same shit as 60 years ago: Refined monochrome renderings of barns, mountains, and nudes. 

I've talked with local photographers about exactly why that is. It's hard to draw any firm conclusions. Some think it's the legacy of Bernie Freemesser. Maybe it's just the way it is in smaller cities. Who knows. In any case, if one were forced to guess the year using only Eugene's photo shows and the Country Fair as evidence, it's been 1973 here for four decades and counting.

The current show at Emerald Art Gallery is no exception. It's a relic from the past. Fortunately it is exceptional by just about every other measure. It's probably the strongest show I've seen locally this year.

Imogen Cunningham was a towering figure of 20th century photography, even if she was slightly overshadowed by other figures during her life. But make no mistake, she was brilliant and original and had an epic career. And her son Rondal was no slouch either, learning at the foot of the master from an early age. He helped his mom in the darkroom at 5, and it was only a few years until he was assisting Dorothea Lange. 

Mother and son have now combined to put together a powerhouse dual show featuring a mix of vintage and recent prints in silver gelatin, platinum, and ink jet. If the work seems slightly old fashioned, they have a good excuse. Cunningham isn't copying f/64. She helped invent it. 

Most of the prints at Emerald are smallish. Few of the Cunningham prints are larger than 8x10. It's a welcome respite from current bigger-is-better fashion. The viewer is forced to go toe to toe with the photos, to engage them intimately. And the photos hold up their end of the bargain! Unlike large ink jets (for example, the show currently at Blue Sky), these works just get better and better the closer one gets. Within 2 inches, however, the rule of diminishing returns kicks in. Viewers may experience eye damage or hallucinations. If unsure where to stand just remember the cucumber-in-the-pocket rule of thumb.  

It doesn't come across well on a computer screen but in physical form this Cunningham shot of a boy near a classical statue glowed with a vibrance that stopped me in my tracks. The fact that it's a young Brett Weston is icing on the cake. Brett F-ing Weston!

Complementing the Weston shot is the famous Cunningham photo of her father slung over a cane at age 90, looking old and withered and alive. Together they bookend the show thematically. Two lives in photos. 

I know Cunningham's work fairly well but before this show I wasn't as familiar with Partridge. I browsed his book 10 years ago, that's it. Tuns out he's still going strong today at 96. Like his mom he's a perfectionist, a virtuoso shooter and printer. Craftwise few photographers nowadays can come close to what these two accomplished. To create something with visual interest and strong physical presence from a mundane daily scene is not an easy trick. Just ask any Instagrammer. No, on second thought don't.

Like his mom I think Partridge approaches life and photography with a sense of mischief. His photo of Yosemite here is probably my favorite in the show. I mean, how hilarious is that? Up yours, nature! Ha! Or maybe he's saying, up yours, Ansel? Either way his wry commentary is a welcome slant on the dusty old f/64 world. He's old school, sure. After all he's almost 100. But I think his photos still have a lot to teach us.

The show closes next Friday and I'd encourage anyone within driving distance to see it. It's an old fashioned relic, but a good one. If you are sometimes tempted to dismiss this style of photography out of hand, the Emerald show may change your mind.

Emerald Art Center, 500 Main St., Springfield, OR, Open Tues - Sat, 11 AM - 4 PM


Hernan Zenteno said...

The cars at the park is wonderful. I don't knew this image. You are very lucky to be able to see some original prints. Warm papers or developers, lot of potassium bromide, contact prints, it must be a terrible show. Thanks for share it.
And I have to add to your comment that at less for me all I like is the same shit that in the 20th century with some new turn in the screw about the theme. How much photographers can you mention that have not a link with some of the big popes of the 20th century?
Happen the same with the music.
Or maybe I am turning an old fart

microcord said...

it's been 1973 here for four decades and counting

Odd: when I think of "US photography 1973", the first book that pops into my head is Suburbia. If 1973 meant that kind of photography, then 1973 would be a lot more appealing than a lot of 2013.

-- sez another old fart. (Incidentally, where's Sergie?)

But I get what you're saying about f/64. And yes, I do like the parking lot photo. I'd go to the show if it were closer to the place that happens to be home.