Havana: Walker Evans and Andrew Moore

at Carol Ehlers, through November 27

From Pin Hole to Pixel

at Wood Street, through November 13

By Fred Camper

Because art often depends on the creative use of limited means, increasingly sophisticated technology doesn’t necessarily lead to better work–in fact it sometimes seems a substitute for an artist’s organizing vision. In two current photography shows, small black-and-white prints or images made with a pinhole camera seemed to me more powerful and intense than large-format color prints and complexly crafted digital collages.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Andrew Moore with Walker Evans, undoubtedly one of the greatest of photographers–though Evans’s and Moore’s pictures of Havana are showing together at Carol Ehlers. Evans, who was born in 1903 and died in 1975, went to Cuba for three weeks in 1933 to take photos for The Crime of Cuba, leftist author Carleton Beals’s protest against the brutal dictatorship of the time. Evans clearly had his own ideas about the project: he stipulated that his images be reproduced at the end of the book in the order he chose rather than intermingled with the text (which by one account he never read). The book–a copy of which is available in the gallery–includes 31 photos, a few not by Evans but selected by him. He took many more: of the 11 street photographs at Ehlers, only 3 are in the book. All the prints are smaller than eight by ten inches, and none is particularly sharp or seductive. These are not works that luxuriate, as Weston’s do, in the sensuality of the silver surface.

Yet several of Evans’s apparently candid shots are among the most powerful images I’ve ever seen. They may have an offhand look, but their forms collide with a peculiar intensity and energy. Each photo is animated by a tension between Evans’s formal arrangements and the uncontrollable chaos of life. In number 12 on the checklist, three men stand in front of a newsstand wearing panama hats, vertical forms that repeat like columns. But their arrangement is irregular–one partly obscures another–and the newspapers and magazines to their right add clutter. Each man faces in a different direction, as if totally unaware of the others’ existence; only Evans sees their common humanity. Multiple copies of a magazine on the newsstand offer a few repeated faces–an ironic contrast to the men and implicit comment on the difference between repeated media images and the disorganized, individuated flow of life. The image beautifully balances centrifugal and centripetal forces: the three figures seem to both come together and fly apart.

Two other photos use divergence from a focal point to depict poverty’s disorder. Family shows an apparently homeless foursome, a haggard-looking mother sitting in front of a doorway holding her youngest while two boys sleep at her feet in rags that don’t cover them. The family members form an inverted T–their sprawling shapes point in different directions, a perfect expression of the family’s coming apart even as the mother, the “pillar,” tries to hold it together. In number three, a roadway through a decrepit squatter community heads toward a road with more shacks; in the background is a large denuded hill scarred with gashes: the eye is led not to a vanishing point but to a desolate landscape showing that ecological ruin and poverty are close companions.

Evans had an eye for the human cost of poverty–he would later become famous for his Depression-era photographs of the United States. But the images of Havana aren’t moving solely because of their often heart-wrenching subject matter: Evans’s compositions express the disorder and devastation of living at starvation’s edge. In Beggar, a seated man stretches his arm out to a well-dressed woman walking past him. But we see only her lower body, and his reaching arm calls attention to the frame’s empty center–to the gap between two figures who will never meet. The empty street, overexposed to a burning white, becomes a metaphor for the isolation of the poor, the breakdown of social connections.

Moore’s eight large-format color prints–the smallest is 30 by 40 inches–are interspersed with the Evans prints. Born in 1957, Moore, a New Yorker, has been photographing ruins of one kind or another for two decades; he first went to Cuba in 1998, he told me, after seeing “an incredible photograph of Havana that had the greatest crumbling rooms.” He believes his interest in ruins may have been sparked by boyhood visits with his architect father to construction sites: “The debris and empty rooms made a big impression on me–I felt drawn to these raw, unfinished spaces.”

Moore’s images are quite amazing: visually rich in tiny details in a way that Evans’s photos are not, they present giant landscapes of peeling paint and dilapidated buildings. Moore purposely avoids a central focus, preferring to create “an allover picture where everything is integrated and the corner is just as important as the center. The map isn’t drawn for you–they are meant to encourage the viewer to explore.”

On his terms Moore’s pictures succeed: the viewer is encouraged to wander about in them. His colors are lush and beautiful; the prints, which he makes himself using subtle darkroom interventions, achieve an almost perfect balance between light and dark. In Marisol a girl sitting in a chair reading a nicely bound book is dwarfed by a huge peeling wall whose surface suggests bubbling lava. In La Guarida we look down the corridor of a former mansion, now an apartment building: through the windows on the left, which have no glass, we can see the wondrous ruin of the exterior, an unruly mix of gaping holes and boarded-up windows. A shirtless man sits in a chair down the hall near a light-filled grand entryway, like a butler dismissed decades ago who hasn’t yet figured out where to go.

But as fine as these images are, ultimately they left me a bit dissatisfied. Moore allows the viewer’s eye more freedom than Evans does, and his pictures are made with love. But it seemed to me that he was letting his mastery of the spectacular potential of color film do too much of the work rather than reenvisioning reality himself. Lost in the cracks of a wall or the details of a facade, I wondered whether I might get more out of viewing the actual scene in Havana, where I’d be able to take even grander visual journeys than these images made possible. Moore’s passionate work can be fascinating, but finally it lacks an organizing vision.

I’m not sure that the 25 pinhole-camera photographs by Kathleen Velo–one of three photographers in “From Pin Hole to Pixel” at Wood Street–reveal any more of an organizing vision than Moore’s pictures. But her small, fuzzy images have an inherent charm, leaving more room for the viewer’s imagination. In Moore’s images one’s eye is always filled, but these pinhole shots evoke the unseen as well as the seen.

A high school art teacher in Arizona, Velo was born in Chicago in 1950 and raised here; she still returns often. Her father, like Moore’s, was an architect, and just as Moore’s father didn’t understand his early photos of rocks and telephone poles, so Velo’s parents were puzzled, she told me, by the time she spent in childhood on perspective drawings of household objects like desks and chairs. But Velo seems to have gained from her father a healthy interest in spatial relationships and inanimate objects.

At the center of My Earliest Memory is the bungalow Velo grew up in. It was taken with a pinhole camera fashioned out of a metal tube that makes objects in the middle appear larger than those on the sides and produces eye-shaped images shading into darkness. The distortion results from the film curving against the tube; the effect is of a dream or memory landscape in which objects floating in a void are larger or smaller depending on their importance to the dreamer. A few of Velo’s other photos were taken with the same camera: In the Alley shows an apparently straight alley curving to the right, and the whole space seems to be spreading out from its center, setting objects adrift.

Shots made with a more conventional pinhole–a modified roll-film camera–are suggestive in different ways. The people in Pier Walk vary from relatively distinct to almost unidentifiable depending on how rapidly they were moving during Velo’s time exposure. This technical “problem” actually makes different rates of movement visible, reminding us that more traditional still shots falsify the continuous nature of time. The slightly blurred buildings and sculpture suggest the limitations of all photography as well as of pinhole images.

Velo’s The Move juxtaposes three double exposures of a chess game, each of which shows static arms superimposed on moving arms. Rather than produce a convincing illusion, Velo uses her medium’s limitations to capture the nature of chess–wait, move, wait–evoking the ambiguous ways in which we perceive space and experience the passage of time. Working honestly at the most basic technical level, she not only reveals her medium’s limitations but leaves an opening for the mind’s eye.

Joyce P. Lopez’s 18 ink-jet prints in “From Pin Hole to Pixel” were taken in spectacular, remote locales, primarily Yemen. But her work reminded me of what I like least about digital imagery. Modifying the colors to produce such pairings as blue landscapes and red skies, she’s produced work that’s very pretty in a narrow decorative sense. But the manipulations seem more a display of technical capabilities than the expression of a vision, making me want to see Yemen’s amazing architecture in more straightforward National Geographic form. Fortunately Lopez has also included 27 relatively unmanipulated prints from the same locales that reveal how good she is at capturing the glorious otherness of distant cultures.

Anna Ullrich’s 12 digital prints are far more manipulated than Velo’s, but she pushes them far enough that her images become unique. If I didn’t find them quite as evocative as Velo’s, I suspect this was due more to personal biases than to Ullrich’s lack of accomplishment.

A Seattle resident born in Minnesota in 1970, Ullrich also works as a Web designer for Adobe. One of three very large prints–the 35-by-65-inch The Assumption of Pleasure (which can also be seen on her Web site at www.annau.com)–reflects her perspective on gender relations. A woman rendered mostly in black and white floats in the center of an extremely diverse composition that mixes color and black and white, decorative surfaces and images with some perspectival depth, and cluttered areas and empty space. Inset in the woman’s outer garment is a laced-up corset each of whose plush red sides houses a nude man. Other male figures in the picture are all smaller than the central woman–and indeed Ullrich’s statement begins “My artwork expresses a desire for mastery and control over the male subject.” She told me that as a young woman she’s felt “conflict and anxiety and frustration,” in part over being harassed, and has finally grown disgusted with the way our culture characterizes men as aggressive and women as passive. The Assumption of Pleasure is no political tract, however: Ullrich’s pictures reflect the emotional state of an individual flooded and overwhelmed by images and experiences.

Analysand (C)–one of three “analysand” pictures–shows a man climbing a wall of dense, translucent fabric, his grasping hands ripping part of it away to reveal a mysterious glowing red. When I asked Ullrich how this image fit with her feminism, she talked at length about how “analysand” is a pun on “anal” and how the analysand images are in part about the male, usually the penetrator, being penetrated anally. But no penetration is pictured, and the title suggested to me that the fabric represents the mass of unconscious thoughts and imagery brought out during psychoanalysis. The analysand’s task is to master them, just as the man tries to master the fabric wall. Nevertheless it continues to overwhelm him, and the rip in the surface seems to reveal even darker secrets within.