Photography is a medium all its own, its realism front and center for the viewer to take in. Fearless Eye, on display at the ArtRage Gallery, 505 Hawley Ave., features the works of four photographers but doesn’t overstate connections between their images. Instead, the exhibition, featuring photos by Ben Altman, Paul Pearce, Bob Gates and Neil Chowdhury, gives viewers an opportunity to sample distinct bodies of work and to appreciate each artist’s visual approach.
Gates’ photos document a longtime downtown landmark: the Centro transfer site at South Salina and East Fayette streets, which shut down on Sept. 3. His images, selected from a large portfolio of roughly 1,900 photos, have two major thrusts. First, they portray people seen at Common Center, including parents with their children, an elderly couple, young people in their 20s and others. Most of the images place the primary subjects up front in the prints, where they clearly stand out.
Second, for Gates, the notion of common space is an essential element in this project. He’s photographed complete strangers sitting on a bench together, people standing curbside just inches away from folks they probably don’t know. Various photographers have shot at Common Center, but Gates is very familiar with the scene there, having photographed that locale for more than 18 months. His images are vivid and engaging as he transforms everyday events into striking photos. And with the closing of the transit hub at this location, his work preserves a bit of local history.
Chowdhury, meanwhile, also embarked on a project depicting streetside life. During the summer of 2008, he spent six weeks photographing Mumbai, India, a large city once known as Bombay. Some observers who view Mumbai focus on the frenetic urban existence, on hotels and office buildings emblematic of the 21st century. But his photos at ArtRage take a radically different approach.
Chowdhury captures a range of everyday people: taxi drivers and street vendors, a barber shaving a customer, individuals who are homeless, a man with a cow. He’s processed the images so that they appear in hues of brown and blue, with a faded look. That technique slows things down, influencing viewers to re-examine the photos, to look more intently at ordinary details, like the sidewalk under a subject’s feet.
This in turn reinforces one of Chowdhury’s principal points. His subjects aren’t merely part of a crowd or symbolic of the past; they are flesh-and-blood individuals living and surviving today, interacting with other people. The images make that point again and again.
A third photographer, Paul Pearce, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the highlands of Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. His images clearly reference that experience by depicting his Army uniform, the Russian rifle he found in a cave in Vietnam, and the paperwork he filed so that he could bring the rifle into the United States.
Yet his photos aren’t a visual memoir per se. Pearce is most concerned with war and peace, with the significance we attach to objects in our culture. In one image, he portrays the rifle and the permission form but places them on top of a map of Vietnam. In another photo, the air rifle he played with as a youth is paired with another Vietnam map and his service ribbons, with the ribbons digitally enlarged so that they resemble a piece of cloth. A third piece, “Twilight in the Gulf,” combines a map of the Gulf of Tonkin, a toy submarine, chess pieces and other tiny objects.
In these and other works, the artist’s choice and placement of objects is far from random. These are well-designed pieces in which the interplay of objects plays a key role. Pearce has shown this work at other venues, with one or two pieces appearing in group exhibits. The ArtRage show sets aside a wall for his photos, allowing viewers to get a better sense of his artworks.
Finally, Ben Altman has depicted himself as an inmate subject to restraint and physical abuse. In these images he appears with his hands tied and a hood over his head, or he is gagged as he pours water over his face. In the photos, Altman functions as photographer, subject and commentator, evoking the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the debate over interrogations of prisoners accused of participating in terrorist networks. Clearly, Altman is vehemently opposed to coercive interrogation.
He’s not claiming any moral high ground, however. Altman sees himself as complicit in abuse and torture and challenges viewers to consider whether they are likewise complicit. His large silver gelatin prints are thought-provoking.
The exhibition, part of the TONY 2012: The Other New York project, presents varied photographic styles, moves from subject to subject and provides ample space for each photographer’s work. It’s a successful show that fits nicely into the ArtRage space.
Fearless Eye is on display through Oct. 27. ArtRage is open Wednesdays to Fridays, 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. ArtRage is sponsoring a forum on Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. Each photographer will make a 15-minute presentation on his work, followed by visitor questions. For more information, call 218-5711.