The City: Harbor of Humanity

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through August 2

Chiapas Revealed at Evanston Hall, through

September 2

By Fred Camper

Architectural historian and critic Franz Schulze, who selected 145 prints for “The City: Harbor of Humanity” from the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s permanent collection, says he was not looking for a narrow theme. Instead, he told me, he conceived of the city “in almost an infinite variety of ways, as any place where humanity gathers.” A more important criterion was the work’s formal quality–yet most of these photographs seem to tell a common story, as the urban landscapes form a kind of grid against which people struggle, often unconsciously.

We see the bleachers crowd in Michael Smith’s New Orleans (1985) from behind and through rows of seats, whose horizontal lines and diagonal braces create a geometry that seems antithetical to the fans’ varied poses. In three untitled photos by Yasuhiro Ishimoto from his “Chicago, Chicago” series (c. 1960), monumental urban canyons cast great walls of shadow over narrow streets and dwarf the tiny figures there. Gilles Peress’s Sons and Daughters of the Interned, Belfast (1974) reminds us that political and social issues can be as confining as city streets and buildings: the frame is almost filled with a sea of children’s tense faces, their anxious expressions mirroring the crowded composition.

Some images, however, remind us that there was a time when architecture aspired to the organicism of nature. In Richard Nickel’s Rothschild Store, Chicago, the ornate facade of this early Adler and Sullivan building peeks from behind a blander one; taller buildings and many water towers seem to press down on it, making it look as isolated as Ishimoto’s lone figures. Like a plant poking its way through the ruled lines of a parking lot, it reminds one that Sullivan based his ornamentation on plant patterns. For World Trade Center, New York City (1972), David Plowden found a spot on the Jersey shore from which the 1913 Woolworth building would be perfectly framed by the Trade Center’s twin towers. Though half their height, the Woolworth’s ornate Gothic spire has far more solidity and weight than the towers, whose almost blank facades seem to merge with the sky. Once the world’s tallest buildings, the Trade Center’s towers enclose and confine the Woolworths, also the tallest in its day, with a certain irony.

Two photographers who work in series explore the differences between urban forms and the human body with particular poignancy. Barbara Crane’s “People of the North Portal” (1970), a series from which 11 samples are displayed, focuses on one entranceway at the Museum of Science and Industry. Repeating the same basic camera angle, though framing each image slightly differently, Crane presents a panoply of humanity entering and exiting–a uniformed cop, businessmen, blue-collar workers, children, hippies–whose variety of body types, poses, and attire contrasts with the restrictive portal. Crane finds a parallel, too, between the photograph’s selective rectilinear frame and urban architecture, which constrains people within particular boundaries. Yet her series is a record of how wonderfully free city people remain.

Human freedom is celebrated even more powerfully in 11 photos by Stephen Marc, many from his “Changing Chicago” series. In the introduction to a book of his photography, Urban Notions, Marc describes his “attempt to communicate something about my collective urban community which I see not only as a photographer but also as a participant.” What’s extraordinary about Marc’s work is the autonomy his subjects seem to seize for themselves: rather than conflict with their surroundings, they dominate them. A man throws a young child into the air; kids hold their skateboards assertively; members of a motorcycle club stand proudly with their bikes–in all cases, the human body asserts a kind of primacy over the environment.

In 62nd Street Between Langley and Champlain (1987), two men play chess on a car’s hood while a third, watching, stands with his knees pressed against the grille: sprawling about this old car, they’ve made it their own. Another car in the same photo sits in an empty lot, a reminder that the gradual destruction of housing on the south side has produced a loose, chaotic urban landscape that’s a far cry from the tight blocks of the Loop. In 39th and Drexel (Channeling Multi-part Hair Style) (1987), a young man’s channel haircut, seen from the back, presents rows of hair echoed by the bricks of the wall he faces–yet the organic irregularity of the hairdo dominates the large, solid structure. Several men in the background are given their own autonomy by a composition that avoids imposing an external unity on the scene.

Schulze doesn’t attempt to articulate political or social points through his selections, but some inevitably come through. One moves, for example, from Marc’s images to Gary Winogrand’s untitled 1964 shot from the “New California Views” portfolio: a white woman lolls on some cushions near a pool, while a few other chairs and sofas are strewn about amid much empty space. Potentially she’s much freer in this uncrowded recreational space than Marc’s subjects are in theirs, but she merely reclines. In the background a uniformed black waiter carries a tray to or from an unseen customer or club member. His pose, no freer than the woman’s, is seen ironically by Winogrand, who apparently composed the image as a social critique. But the contrast between Winogrand’s waiter and Marc’s figures makes the critique far stronger.

The photos in “The City” make their points formally, through composition and light; Marc is perhaps the least formal of the group, framing his figures to bring out the strength of their poses. But there are ways of revealing human truths without making much use of formal composition, as Marcey Jacobson illustrates in the 107 untitled photographs of “Chiapas Revealed,” at Evanston Hall in northwest Chicago. Though a small number of her landscape images are rather studied and quite beautiful, the great majority of her photos–taken of the indigenous inhabitants of this southern Mexican region between 1959 and 1995–seem intentionally antiformalist, though she too places these people in relationship with their surroundings.

Jacobson’s compositions tend to be simple and undeclarative: pictures of individuals are often head-and-shoulder shots in which little of the background is visible. We also see Chiapans in a variety of activities: making music, carrying burdens, embroidering, reading, horseback riding, talking. Like rather conventional tourist photography, Jacobson’s shots often create a sense of mystery or romance. Two extremely young children ride a horse; an old woman preparing wool is aided by a child who holds her skein; a man carries a giant stack of birdcages much taller than himself. Several people at Jacobson’s opening told her they’d love to go to San Cristobal, the town where many of her photos were taken; she responded that they’d better hurry, because the traditional culture is disappearing fast.

Born in New York City in 1911, Jacobson first visited Chiapas in 1956, intending to stay only for six months; she still lives there today. Initially she took trips back to New York to work as a mechanical draftsman and designer, she told me, but soon she was able to live in Chiapas permanently. She was attracted to “the indigenous life, the mountains, the beautiful light. It was also inexpensive to live here, and it was such a foreign culture, so different, so simple–though actually the structure of their lives is far from simple.” A self-taught photographer, she makes her own prints; this is her first one-person Chicago show.

What I liked was the modesty that underlies Jacobson’s antiformalism. Rather than seeking to impose her own vision on her subjects, she lets the subjects take over, modeling her compositions around them. What saves Jacobson’s work from the cuteness of many travel shots is the subtle way she allows her compositions to remain open. Elements often refer or extend to areas beyond the photograph’s borders, or to past or future times. Figures sometimes walk toward us–but they also walk away. We see a young child lifting a rooster by its claws but don’t know why: no titles or captions explain these works. “I don’t like to tie anybody else to my vision–they might see something completely different in it,” says Jacobson. Though she’s lived in Chiapas half a lifetime, one senses in her lack of formal closure and of decisive photographic statements an unwillingness to presume that even she understands this very different culture completely.

Faces sometimes look at the camera but more often look to the side at something we can’t see, as if the person were about to begin some new activity. In one image of a lone youth sitting by a dirt road, his donkey standing nearby, thatched-roof homes and a few figures fill the rest of the composition–but it’s nowhere near as ordered as the city views in the Museum of Contemporary Photography show. Jacobson creates a wonderful balance between figures and backgrounds: neither seems to determine the other.

The usual natural harmony of these scenes makes the occasional lack of balance stand out all the more. An image of a huge enclosed estate, horses grazing within a giant rectangular pen, is in remarkable contrast to the open, casual land-use patterns we see otherwise. In another, a large “Coca-Cola grande” sign on a wall is bigger than an almost surreal stone figure sculpture standing next to it, and to a man who’s smaller still. Despite her modesty, here Jacobson manages to convey the irony of the fact that, just as American academics have begun to advocate multiculturalism, American mass culture is taking over the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph by Marcey Jacobson; “39th and Drexel (Channeling Multi-Part Hair Style” by Stephen Marc.