Monday, July 4, 2011

Chip Simone. Walls and Pages

It is likely that the thoughts of a photography enthusiast, at one time or another, go to the optimum way to view a body of work. It is difficult to deny the appeal of thoughtfully-placed art on the enveloping walls of a major museum or gallery exhibit. Likewise the tactile sensation of holding a well-bound photography book in your hand is an undeniable pleasure for many of us.

It is clear that each of these photography media choices have their own shadows and highlights. Let’s take the occasion of Chip Simone’s just-opened exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta to talk about each. If you are reading this posting you are likely to already know of The Resonant Image exhibit. Perhaps you walked around the hallowed halls with Chip the afternoon of Saturday, June 18 as he discussed his work. Maybe you were even fortunate enough to take home a signed copy of Chroma, the exhibition book published by Nazraeli Press to accompany the exhibit

The Exhibit

In relating the feel of these two ways to view a collection of photographs, let’s begin with The Resonant Image exhibit. I won’t reiterate Chip’s long-term history in Atlanta or the tale behind how the exhibit came to be. You can read and view these facts in a well-done interview by Atlanta Celebrates Photography in conjunction with ArtRelish and in an accessAtlanta writeup.

What is our first impression when we round the corner of the downstairs gallery at the High to see the exhibit? It is the massive deep red wall with three of Chip’s photographs. It is not so much the subject matter of the three images that we first note. Rather it is the splashes of brilliant yellow leaping from the images. We then see “The Resonant Image” in large lettering on the red wall, perhaps read a sentence or two from the wall text and then return to the three photographs. Now we finally take the time to see the yellow wall adjoining the deep purple house, the fragmented yellow sign, and the yellow tarp-like object draped over a classic piece of Chicago architectural detail.

What do those first dozen steps into The Resonant Image accomplish? They show that Chip and Brett Abott, High Curator of Photography, have achieved the creation a memorable visual experience that goes beyond the impact of the images themselves. On a single wall they encapsulated three key characteristics of Chip’s brand of street photography: color - often brilliant primary color, camera-to-subject distance that is rarely less than sidewalk wide and rarely more than street wide, and most definitely urbanity – hardly a tree and never a green hill in sight.

We round the corner of the red entry wall to its reverse side. We are immediately drawn to a grouping of four images. We chuckle at the two men on the wooden bench, and then the woman slumped over on the park bench. Then we get it: all four images are of seated individuals. Did Chip intend to acquire images of people on seats? Likely not, but the curator saw the relationships within the group of over a hundred candidate images for the exhibit and installed them together. We enjoy the juxtaposition and the added feeling of synchronicity that we perhaps would not experience if we saw each of the four images in isolation.

We see therefore that one of the major attributes of the carefully curated exhibit is sharing the curator’s eye in finding relationships among images that we might not have otherwise seen ourselves. If we are of the school that it is only the content of the isolated image that is important, then this attribute will not ring true with you. However if you take a more holistic view of art and believe that it is about larger meanings that encompass the interrelationships between subjects, disparate artists, and time periods, then the thoughtfully assembled exhibition is for you.

Now let’s step around the corner again and glance over the small wall with the block of cobalt blue. All we see from a distance is blue and white. As we step closer we begin to recognize the outline of a trailer. Finally, standing immediately before the image, we see that it is a pickup bed mounted on wheels, sitting on a white snow-covered parking lot, against a background of a white building in front of a blinding white sky. As we peer even closer into the image, we see the smears of the snowflakes against the black trailer tire as they pelt the photographer. We could almost shiver at the thought of standing before the trailer trying to fumble with the camera dials with our frigid fingers. We’re alone in a cold white world with an inexplicable brushstroke of blue. Who could resist capturing this image? Chip couldn’t. In fact this was, after decades of black and white work, his first color photograph.

The blue trailer illustrates another positive characteristic of viewing art in a gallery. Seeing a photograph from across a large room shows us a broad ill-defined expanse of color, form, and light and shadow. It gives us a sense of the spirit of the image without the encumbrance of the detail. Is this a good thing? For those valuing the holistic view, yes. For the enthusiasts of the isolated view, stepping close enough to the image to see the wind-driven snowflakes gives the pleasure of becoming one with the scene, almost being there in body.

Coming back around to the red title wall, few who know Chip would believe that the fact that all three images portray exactly the same shade of yellow is a happy accident. It is as if each were squeezed out of the same tube of Winsor & Nelson Medium Cadmium Yellow Artist’s Colour. For Chip, subtle tweaks of color and perspective here and there are an acknowledged way of implementing the artist’s vision.

The Book

Let’s walk out of the High with our copy of Chroma in hand. Recall that this is the title of the Nazraeli Press book produced in conjunction with The Resonant Image. It is not a true exhibit catalog of the 64 images in the High, but rather a snapshot of 35 of Chip’s recent images, most of which are in the exhibit.

As we open Chroma to its frontispiece, we see our blue trailer again. While the color and the overall blue-on-white sensation matches that of the image on the gallery wall, it is somehow not as alive as what we saw in the High. We’ve lost all but the merest hint of the blowing snow, separating us from much of the sensation of coldness and isolation that we have standing in front of the original. Yet, we are holding a good approximation of the original in our hand while seated on our shaded patio with our morning coffee just an arm’s reach away. We can’t take our Starbucks into the High, and we can’t drag along our lounge chair, and we can’t sense the breeze wafting over the jasmine in the garden. In short, the book of Chip’s images is portable, accessible, and if we so choose, always with us. We can enjoy its treasures again and again over decades.

Chroma, like the majority of photographic books, is short on words. After all we bought the book to see, not to read, right? Perhaps. But perhaps we’re missing something as well. As we discussed in Random Radiance last year it is often the backstory that makes the photograph. Those of us who have heard Chip talk about his individual photographic pieces know that his highly articulate exposition adds volumes to our appreciation of his art. However we also know that Chip is also a proponent of allowing the art to speak for itself. He chose that minimalist approach for Chroma.

While Chroma is not the best case of combining words with photographs, there are a myriad of examples out there that do make the argument. A favorite of mine is One Thousand Moons by Eddie Soloway. Call them essays, or call them memories, but the words of Mr. Soloway are just as pictorial as the images. A great photography book can offer this; exhibitions cannot.

While we’re on the topic of books, what do you notice when you thumb through Chroma? First, after you note the images themselves, you see that there are no titles to the photographs. Then you notice there are no page numbers. If you don’t have titles, then you don’t need an index, and if you don’t have an index then you have no need for page numbers. It all holds together.

But why are there no titles? I can venture a guess. Of course I would not have to guess. I could just ask Chip and get an accurate answer. But it’s more fun to put our own spin on the question. Those of us who have heard Chip talk about a thing or two know that he often goes against the flow – but always for good reason.

Title. What do titles do? They give a tiny piece of interpretation: a sort of micro artist’s statement about the image. Some say that this is a good thing. Some leave the interpretation to the viewer. It’s not often we can have it both ways, but Chip has succeeded. Chroma has no titles; The Resonant Image does. Decide for yourself which is the most effective.

Personally, I find it fun to have just enough information in the title to pique the imagination. For example, go to the gallery and find Chip’s photograph of an astonished woman behind a guy with his fingers in his mouth. The title says “Birdman”. What story does your imagination tell you about what is going on? Without the title, the image is humorous; with it, it tells a story in miniature.

Final Words

You say I’ve forgotten several choices of media. Books and galleries are so ‘yesterday’. What about online galleries, or web sites, or e-books? Of course these have their place, but this article is not intended to be a critique of all the ways of viewing photographs, but simply a few observations of a few emotions that may come to the surface in viewing a particular exhibition and the book that accompanies it. We’ll save a discussion of e-media for another time.

So you’ve noticed that this articles has lots of words but no images of Chip’s photographs. No, I didn’t forget to attach them. Most of you reading this probably reside in the Atlanta area. If you’ve not done so already, show your membership card at the desk at the High, walk the exhibit, and buy Chroma in the museum shop on your way out the door. Can’t do this? Then order the book from Nazraeli. If you are reading Random Radiance, you are an enthusiast. Go and act on your enthusiasm and take Chip’s photographs home with you, either in your head or in your hand.

All text copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger.