at the Public Library Cultural Center


Olive Pierce

at the Field Museum

Most people don’t spend much time looking at art photography, the kind displayed in galleries or glossy coffee-table books. What we look at more are the photographs that function as personal records–that document important events. Among the best established of such genres is the wedding album–a highly ritualized affair that is supposed to preserve the blessed event for posterity. In other words, what you drag out when the relatives come by at the holidays.

Chicago photographer Steven Gross, who works as a commercial wedding photographer, has seen enough weddings to know that there is a lot more to them than the stiffly formal poses that find their way into the album. In his current exhibition at the Cultural Center, Gross presents series of black-and-white photos on weddings and militarism; though he claims he doesn’t think the two are connected, he turns up some surprising links between them.

These pictures are not necessarily the sort of thing you’d want to show dear old Aunt Hortense. Because some of what Gross finds at weddings is just what people don’t want to see in their albums: a bride with her dress hitched way up poses before a couple of porn-film posters; a cop leans against a car as a bride goes by; a hand brandishes a water pistol at a ducking bride holding a champagne glass. Though none of these photos presents a situation that is explicitly evil, they do evoke discomfort. If they were in a photo album, you’d flip to the next page–or look more intently, if there were no one in the room with you.

Gross has a fine eye for the absurd–the balloons straining up amidst empty folding chairs at an outdoor reception, the leering doll that ornaments a beribboned Mercedes at a Berlin wedding–but he also knows how to capture ephemeral beauty. Perhaps his best wedding shots are intimate views of participants preening and waiting nervously. You can almost hear the rustling of the gown as a bride rushes upstairs in one photo, or the wind that enshrouds a young bridesmaid whose veil is lightly held in an adult hand. Fleeting glimpses permanently fixed, the images establish a sort of visceral link between the wedding day and a sense of time passing.

The shot that juxtaposes the bride and a water pistol is echoed eerily by the photo next to it of a little boy holding a cap gun to another’s head, which is in turn echoed by the photo next to it of two modern-day Nazi brothers giving a straight-arm salute. If Gross’s wedding photos emphasize traditionally feminine frills and lace, what he shows us about war is mainly macho bluster. There are no combat photos here, only shots of military parades, the occasional arrest, and an awful lot of men swaggering about with guns. From boys not yet in their teens to soldiers in full army regalia (Gross’s photos seem to imply a seamless evolution from one to the other), they all seem ready to blurt out “Make my day, punk” at the slightest provocation: the sort of faces only the NRA could love.

The only armed men Gross shows us in action are arresting demonstrators at European antimilitary protests. But somehow his action shots don’t have the same fascination as his frontal psychological portraits. Where do they come from? you wonder of the Nazi brothers. What have they experienced to bring them to this? Looking at Gross’s photos of young boys with guns, you worry that there may be many more to follow the brothers.

Yearbook photos encompass a broader circle of people than wedding photos, and they encompass a broader period of time–a year rather than a day. Still, these photos also try to pin down particular people at a particular time. Olive Pierce’s strength lies in creating out of that genre images powerful enough to make a statement about the difficult lives of high school students in the city.

Pierce, who grew up in Lake Forest but has lived in Massachusetts for most of her adult life, began taking photos for the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School yearbook when her son was a student there. Several years later, after beginning work there as a substitute teacher, she initiated a photography workshop for students and began documenting their lives through her own photos.

Pierce mixes several media in the resulting show: her black-and-white prints are displayed on the walls, while the same photos (along with many others) are flashed in a short slide show. Accompanying the slides is a sound track made up of such adolescent-rebellion standbys as Pink Floyd’s The Wall and interviews with the students whose portraits we see. (The prints and interviews are reproduced in the book that accompanies the exhibition.)

Behind the portrait faces, most of which are calm and rather hopeful-looking, are tumultuous stories: “I got six older brothers that have been through court and jail,” says one student. Or: “I was sixteen. . . . That’s when I had the brain tumor.” Or: “I tried razor blades. I have scars up and down my arms.” Or: “I had a cousin named Patricia who was fighting with the Sandinistas, and we found her dead in the doorway.” It is remarkable what these kids have been through.

Far more remarkable, though, is their lucidity about their experiences; the maturity of these teenagers–many of them far from model students–is something that hardly seems to mesh with the daily newspaper accounts of violence and low test scores in urban high schools. (Pierce admits that she was trying to “say something positive” about teenagers but insists that the images and interviews she chose for the show are representative of the student body.)

Pierce was surprised at how easily the students revealed personal details of their lives during the interviews, her photos show that they were also willing to be photographed in intimate situations. Kids embrace, smoke in bathrooms, struggle over class assignments, and goof off in the back of classrooms. Pierce captures fleeting expressions that say everything about her subjects’ states of mind: football players pose, cool as Gross’s soldiers, on the bus taking them to a game; drummers cavort playfully behind their instruments. There are high jinks in home ec, frustrations on the basketball court, kisses at the senior prom. Pierce’s timing enables her to evince the emotions behind the moment.

What these students spend most of their time doing, though, is hanging out. Hanging out on sidewalks. Hanging out in bathrooms. Hanging out in gym class. Pizza-shop hanging out. Weight-room hanging out. Boss hanging out. It makes you remember that adolescents have a lot of free time, and a lot to think about.

The students of Cambridge Rindge & Latin may consider this a good record of their racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically mixed school. But it doesn’t really matter. These photos and interviews are of everykid, a suffering, struggling, and surviving being who could be living anywhere; Kids should see this exhibit so they realize they’re not alone. Their elders should see it so they realize that kids know how to think for themselves.