Rebecca Lepkoff

at Stephen Daiter, through August 10

Justine Kurland

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through September 14

Three major tendencies in the history of photography–the photo as portrait, social document, and autonomous art object–are all held in splendid balance in Rebecca Lepkoff’s 18 vintage prints now at Stephen Daiter, her first one-person show in Chicago. She’s been interested in photography since the 1930s and has documented principally the neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where she grew up. Daily, (Banana Cart), 1940’s shows a street from a second-story window. Its combination of a pushcart, two baby carriages, and a mound of trash shows Lepkoff’s sensitivity to the street’s mix of hope and decrepitude, but the photo is also striking as a composition. The dynamic range provided by the bricks of the buildings, the various shades of gray, and the black shadows creates a rich set of contrasts–these are the normal tones of a photographic print, yet it seems almost as if the image is forming before one’s eyes. This image is all the more extraordinary because though she’d been given informal instruction by her then boyfriend, photographer Arnold Eagle, Lepkoff hadn’t taken any photography classes at the time she made this picture.

Lower East Side, (Children Playing in Street, Little Girl in Box), 1940’s includes five kids in different poses, none of their faces clearly visible. It recalls the multicharacter compositions of Helen Levitt–whose work, along with Walker Evans’s, Lepkoff particularly admires–though it has none of her lyricism. In Levitt the kids’ positions seem almost unnaturally graceful; here they have the uncomfortable stoops and bends of people adrift. Most of Lepkoff’s photos are unposed, though she told me that when she took Lower East Side, NYC, (Three Boys, One Holding an Apple), 1950’s, she saw the three and “asked them to stop. But I wouldn’t wait for them to get all fixed up, so they wouldn’t get into a pose kind of thing.” Two of the three face the camera, and while their expressions are different, they’re not especially revealing–the faces throughout the exhibit rarely reveal much. But the middle boy holds a partly eaten apple, which Lepkoff places at her composition’s center as if it’s a sign of his identity.

Lepkoff, who’s 85, was a modern dancer before World War II, with Doris Humphrey and the Experimental Dance Group, and she bought her first camera in 1939 with money she earned performing at the New York World’s Fair. After the war she read an article about New York’s Photo League and “found their philosophy very close to the things I was doing and thinking.” She joined, and some of the pieces in this show were made during one of the league’s workshops. But what distinguishes her work from that of many of her colleagues there is the respectful distance she maintains from her subjects. The two women who may be arguing in Untitled, (Two Women Talking Near Outdoor Fruit Stands), 1940’s are formidable presences, opposing vertical masses that anchor the composition, though we can’t see enough to guess the nature of the exchange. Key to Lepkoff’s stance is the recognition of her subjects’ fundamental otherness. Though she visited the same locations so often the locals grew comfortable with her, her photos never purport to understand others–certainly not to see into their souls. Instead people are presented as individuals who have an existence independent of Lepkoff’s, autonomous beings who can’t be truly pierced by the camera’s eye. At the center of Wanderer, Hester St. Story, 1940’s is a slightly stooped man who looks back at the camera almost furtively, as if he doesn’t want to be captured but also knows he has little to fear. Some photographers seem to use a withering gaze to reveal or expose their subjects; Lepkoff’s carefully balanced and somewhat distanced compositions give her subjects autonomy. That she doesn’t purport to fully know them is a sign of the highest respect.

Fine-art photography has changed radically in the last few decades. Photos are painted over, torn and bent, used as parts of installations. But even among straight prints, the modernist ideal that a work of art should be true to its medium has given way to its opposite: photographs imitate paintings or movies, try to become performance pieces, aspire to theater. Any use of a medium is of course legitimate, but the attempt to use one to evoke others requires a level of artistry few possess.

Justine Kurland’s 24 color prints from two different 2001 series at the Museum of Contemporary Photography are provocative largely because of their subject matter, women or girls arranged in landscapes. In the “Gardens” series the women are mostly nude and presented as if everyone gardened with nothing on. Red Zinnia gives us four nudes, two working on a flower bed and two in the background, in a misty landscape that’s a bad imitation of impressionism. Pumpkins, in which a woman far off in a field holds a pumpkin in front of one breast and next to the other, is a cute piece of kitsch that was trumped a half century ago by the famous Jayne Mansfield milk-bottle shot in Frank Tashlin’s movie The Girl Can’t Help It. Vegetable Garden shows two nude adult women and one fully clothed adult male–a curious discrepancy that made me think of Jock Sturges’s photos, full of nude teen girls and women but curiously lacking in pubescent or older males. At least Sturges’s erotic motivation seems pretty clear. Here the rationale is hard to discern.

The other series, “New Zealand,” consists of landscapes with New Zealand schoolgirls clad in their uniforms. Kurland is surely conscious of how unnatural and posed her photographs look. In a book of her work on sale at the museum, Spirit West, John Kelsey argues that she’s referencing the way that 19th-century landscape photographs were consciously arranged: “The fakery, theatricality and constructed-ness of early exploration photography is fully exposed in Kurland’s staged narratives.” The problem is that fakery is so fully exposed here that one isn’t sure whether to take Kurland’s pictures as surreal or silly. Is March to Sea, which shows 25 girls walking toward the lens, meant to evoke adolescent discovery or explore photographic fakery–or present the cast of Night of the Teenage Dead? Sheep Wranglers sets girls and sheep in a bucolic field in a composition that recalls the paintings of Claude Lorrain, though it’s not nearly so well composed. The weighty central tree unbalances the image, and areas of sunlit grass are burned almost white; at left center is the requisite kitschy moment–two girls lying in the grass, their feet touching. The girls in Jungle Gym are arranged with the eye of an interior decorator on various tree branches and the rocks below like Christmas ornaments; as in all of the photos in the show, the inartful composition depends solely on its overheated content for its effects.

Kurland uses the frame as a kind of stage on which to play out her theatrical fantasies. But unless you have a school-uniform fetish, these fantasies are hardly compelling–they read like a trite cross between Federico Fellini and Russ Meyer. Most irritating, all of the girls seem to be projections of a single sensibility; none is given the irreducible otherness that inheres in anyone we encounter with true respect, which is what Lepkoff’s figures have. Viewing Kurland’s images in light of the confessional and self-portraiture strains in recent art, one wonders if it’s even possible for artists to speak in the third person anymore.

I did like one picture in the show, Ghost Ship. Here the girls are distant figures on a beach, and a huge rotting ship occupies the right side of the picture. Its listing form, and the irregular decay of its curved wooden hull and boxy cabin, suggests an element outside this series’s tame fantasy world: the organic and untamable patterns of nature itself. Because Kurland’s girls never attain the distinctive presence she gives the ship, they never seem half as interesting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rebecca Lepkoff, Justine Kurland.