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Reality in Abstract 

Three very different photographers delve into documentary and artifice

Wednesday, Jun 29 2005
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The man in the denim shorts and bright, patterned shirt smiles for the camera from a living room, which has all the features of a typical middle-class American home. There's a coffee table topped with a doily and a modest vase of flowers. An entertainment center bulges with TV, DVD player, and stereo. But Jasper at Home by Ghanaian photographer Philip Kwame Apagya is a work of fantasy: Jasper is real enough, but his home is nothing more than a flat, painted backdrop. It's a cartoon of a living room that doesn't even attempt to fool the eye.

Apagya's fanciful portraits are currently on view at the Rena Bransten Gallery alongside the work of two other photographers, German-born Uta Barth and San Franciscan Eirik Johnson. Although the exhibits are not presented as a group show -- the three vary widely in background, approach, and subject matter -- they all explore photography's inherent tension between documentary and artifice. Apagya uses the contrast between two and three dimensions to reveal economic disparities between Africa and the United States; Barth freeze-frames fleeting moments to muse on the nature of perception; and Johnson balances grit and artistry to find beauty in unexpected places. Together they remind us that photography is not just a reflection of reality, but a means of creating it. When you snap a photo, you are not simply commemorating a moment, you are helping to define it.

Apagya's photos play with the conventions of formal studio portraiture in which patrons present themselves as they would like to be seen and remembered. Photography in this context is wish fulfillment, allowing people to picture themselves in grand homes or exotic locales. But by rendering their dream environments as rough, hand-painted illustrations, Apagya underscores the distance between his subjects' present-day reality and the life to which they aspire.

The vibrant backdrops catalog the accouterments of the good life: The aforementioned TV, DVD, and stereo are joined in other images by computers, refrigerators stocked with fruit, idyllic beaches, and, surprisingly enough, sparkling, fully appointed bathrooms. Small luxuries like canned fish and liquor are carefully detailed, brand names and all, and presented without regard for the rules of perspective -- the better to show them off. But enthusiasm for these imagined worlds is tempered by awareness of their pretense. In Frankie's Internet Café, the backdrop -- depicting a row of computer terminals and a map of the world -- sags so badly that we can see the cracked plaster and dingy curtains of the real room behind it. Apagya's subjects are playing at being wealthy, or well-traveled, or successful, revealing the disparity between a product-laden Western lifestyle and the underdevelopment that plagues much of present-day Africa. Although Apagya's subjects smile directly at the camera, beneath their cheery bravado lurks a subtle critique of global inequities.

While Apagya toes the line between reality and aspiration, Uta Barth uses photography's artifice to examine the mechanics of perception. Her exhibit consists of multiple photographs of the same austere white table. In each image, a vase -- sometimes filled with daisies, sometimes with dandelions or other everyday flowers -- is placed off to one side of the composition, as if caught in a momentary sidelong glance. Where traditional still lifes place the object of scrutiny front and center, Barth's photographs are curiously blank. So blank that a set of keys in the corner of the triptych Untitled (05.12) seems like a mistake. But this casual emptiness is her point: The table could be the one in the foyer that you pass every day but never really notice; the photographs attempt to capture these unremarkable moments, calling attention to the myriad tiny acts of perception that make up our reality.

Although the ideas they express are appealing, even poetic, Barth's images feel a little cold. They attempt to re-create the cursory glance, but feel too composed, too perfect -- almost like a section of an IKEA ad -- to be completely convincing. So while the photographs try to dissect perception itself, they don't feel real or rich enough to make us care.

Eirik Johnson's gorgeous landscape photographs also document neglected or marginal spaces, but instead of examining the esoteric structure of vision and time, Johnson's concerned with the physical places where development and its aftermath meet the natural environment. In Untitled (island) from the "Borderlands" series, a man-made waterfall surrounded by newly planted seedlings sits in a forest. A harbinger of some new housing development, it's encircled by piles of freshly bulldozed earth and powered by the bright orange and yellow extension cords snaking along its base. The irony, of course, is that the natural environment has been destroyed to make way for its simulation.

Johnson documents a neighborhood on the edge in the series "West Oakland Walk," finding moments of startling beauty amidst economic and physical deterioration. In Abandoned House, the slumping mass of the structure's decaying remains is countered by an exuberant burst of pampas grass. Blue Car, Blue Building is just that -- a cerulean '60s-style coupe parked in front of a building of the same intense hue. In choosing troubled West Oakland as his subject, Johnson runs the risk of aestheticizing poverty, but his strict eye for classical composition saves the photos from veering into the maudlin. In Bike Beneath Tree, a broken child's bike lies in the front yard of an old house. It could easily be a sentimental image of lost innocence, but is redeemed by the rigorous formal triangulation of the shot: The red of the bicycle is echoed in the house's red steps, which in turn lead the eye to the pink plastic playhouse in the neighboring yard. Johnson's images are exquisitely composed, but they're not abstractions. He successfully balances a painter's eye for color and shape with a concern for economic and environmental realities. As a portrait of a neighborhood, "West Oakland Walk" transforms scenes that might otherwise evoke pity into opportunities for contemplation.

Johnson, Barth, and Apagya all exploit photography's essential contradiction: A photograph is simultaneously the direct imprint of light bouncing off physical surfaces and a flimsy piece of paper. It is a collaboration of the external world and the imagination, and Johnson's Fenced in Car expresses this tension perfectly: The headlights and grill of a car peek out from an opening in a fence, sandwiched on three sides by solid boards. The boards make a pattern on the surface of the image, pushing it toward abstraction, but the details of the car and house beyond the fence pull us back into the realities of life in West Oakland, where poverty and security sometimes necessitate such improvised architecture. The photo is simultaneously a record of an unusual fence and an artful, eye-pleasing composition. And ultimately, these photographs remind us that picture-taking is as much a record of the world as a way of constructing and understanding it.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota

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