December 4, 2022

Gregory Halpern’s outstanding photographic portrait of Buffalo closes out the Bidwell era at Transformer Station

By Steven Litt,

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A big change is coming soon to the nonprofit Transformer Station gallery in Ohio City, which has enormously strengthened the visual arts scene on Cleveland’s West Side.

Collectors Fred and Laura Bidwell, who opened the gallery in 2013 as a joint project with the Cleveland Museum of Art, will soon conclude the 10-year agreement under which they have shared the gallery, which they have owned and operated, with the museum. They’re donating the building to the museum, which will take over programming next year.

Over the decade, the Bidwells organized about half of the 40 shows at the gallery, alternating their projects on a staggered schedule with those organized by the museum. It’s been a fantastic run, and highly stimulating to see the gallery bounce back and forth between the museum’s shows and those organized by the Bidwells.

The more immediate news is that before withdrawing, the Bidwells have mounted one last excellent show. It’s an exquisitely melancholic photographic portrait of Buffalo by Gregory Halpern, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Comprised of more than 40 photographs taken over the past 20 years in Halpern’s hometown, the show explores a body of work that has regional and national significance as a powerful and highly personal portrait of working-class neighborhoods and people in a declining industrial Great Lakes city.

Halpern’s photographs exude the damp chill of a rainy day in March, the muffled silence of falling snow, the ragtag patterns of torn, chain-link fences around shuttered factories, the black wetness of crumbling asphalt pavement in mud season, the moldy fug of badly maintained, century-old wood-frame houses.

Clevelanders should easily be able to relate to the show’s wintry moods, rough textures, and muted tones. Halpern has an exquisite knack for discovering the offbeat beauty of a place often disregarded and disrespected by the rest of the country.

Moment of transition

Yet for all there is to like about the show, it’s also a bittersweet moment because it marks the end of an era at Transformer Station. More about the Halpern show in a moment; first a few points should be made about the gallery and its contributions.

The Bidwells’ goal in the project was to share the space with the museum while exhibiting selections from their own extensive collection of contemporary photography and to organize related projects with leading contemporary photographers from around the U.S.

With high ceilings and 3,500 square feet of exhibit space, the building, a former streetcar electrical substation built in 1924, was the perfect place in which to introduce museum-quality exhibitions to the city’s West Side.

A renovation and expansion designed by Cleveland architect John Williams provided excellent natural light while preserving gritty industrial details, such as the rugged crane and chain lift in the gallery’s original 1924 section.

The Bidwells originally planned to continue their involvement for as long as 15 years. But Fred Bidwell said in an interview with and The Plain Dealer that since he and Laura launched the project, he has become heavily engaged in founding and leading the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. After its debut in 2018 and the COVID-delayed second version this summer and fall, FRONT is scheduled to return in 2025.

“It’s a good time to make the transition [to the Cleveland Museum of Art],’’ said Bidwell, who is also a longstanding trustee at the museum. “We’ve established a pattern here that I think is pretty strong. It’s a good time to pass the baton.”

For its part, the Cleveland Museum of Art will announce future plans for Transformer Station in early 2023. Todd Mesek, the museum’s chief marketing officer, said the institution will continue using the space as “a platform to experiment with contemporary art and deepen our connection with the Near West Side community.’’

A strong collaboration

Looking back, it’s clear the Bidwell-CMA collaboration has been highly productive.

The museum’s shows at the gallery have been outstanding. They have ranged from exhibits on the paintings of Dana Schutz and Scott Olson, to minimalist sculptures of Dan Graham, and photographs by Rania Matar. The museum also displayed works by Los Angeles painter Laura Owens alongside works created in collaboration with Cleveland-area high school students in an innovative museum education program.

The Bidwells, for their part, produced shows that explored the edgy frontiers of contemporary photography. Examples include the 2014 exhibition “Redheaded Peckerwood,’’ which focused on photographer Christian Patterson’s morbid and morally ambiguous exploration of the Charlie Starkweather killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the 1950s.

Later the same year, the Bidwells followed up with a show exploring works by contemporary photographers who focus on taking pictures of strangers, often without the subject’s awareness.

The current exhibition by Halpern would be a special artistic event under any circumstance, but it’s also a typical example of the high quality of the Bidwells’ exhibitions. Cleveland gallerist Lisa Kurzner also worked on the project.

Unlikely beauty

Halpern, 45, grew up in what he describes as a middle-class Buffalo neighborhood during a time in which the city had yet to experience trendy zones of reinvestment and revitalization. Halpern attended public schools in what he called “a really rough neighborhood,’’ and spent hours after school with his older brother exploring abandoned factories and warehouses.

“It was like a wonderland for us,’’ he said. “The architecture in Buffalo is amazing.” His peregrinations provided what he described as “a sense of joy and wonder and wandering.’’

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and literature at Harvard, Halpern followed up with a master-of-fine-arts degree at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. While teaching at several colleges and universities, he’s earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and has published six books of his photography.

Titled “19 Winters / 7 Springs,’’ the Transformer Station show portrays Buffalo’s downtrodden side without descending to ruin-porn cliches or exploitation.

The photographs are masterful in their precise focus on well-defined subjects, their classic elegance, and their superbly muted palette of grays, blues, and soft ambers.

Halpern has a quirky eye that focuses on telling details. For example, there’s a tightly cropped shot of someone’s wrinkled hand gesturing toward a pencil drawing of an angel scrawled on a white-painted wall, like the hand of God reaching for Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling.

Halpern’s landscape subjects range from a blue-painted outhouse glimpsed in a snowy field in the blue-gray light of dusk to an image of black-painted steps with the word “Until’’ portentously scrawled on one of the risers in bright yellow paint.

A time-exposure photograph of a wood frame house captures a strangely conical plume of smoke issuing from its chimney like something glimpsed in a child’s drawing. Halpern doesn’t often include identifiable references to Buffalo, but an electrical tower in the distance signals the city’s signals proximity to hydroelectric plants along the Niagara River.

Halpern’s portraits emphasize the dignity and humanity of his subjects, plus a sense that they were full participants in the creation of their images.

In one portrait, a young Black woman sits at a picnic table, gazing diagonally at the photographer in a ¾ profile, with her head tilted slightly forward. The fingers of her right hand rest on the table in a curled position that seems both relaxed and poignantly uncertain.

In another image, a white, teen-aged boy stands with crutches in a cemetery; his right foot is bare and curled inward in a position indicating it can’t bear weight.

Who is he and how was he injured? All of Halpern’s photographs are untitled, which leaves viewers wondering about who his subjects might be, and what they’re thinking. That open-ended quality adds to the power of the images, which is rooted in the tension between their visual polish and their ambiguity.

A possible exception to the sense of collaboration between Halpern and his portrait subjects is an image of a young white boy standing on a patch of ice next to railroad tracks. The hood of his grubby jacket is cinched tightly around his chapped face, indicating that it’s bitterly cold. The boy’s shoelaces are untied, perhaps indicating he’s got other things on his mind than worrying about such details.

The boy’s furrowed expression and defensive-looking pose, with his arms crossed across his chest, raises questions about whether he could meaningfully give permission to be photographed. Halpern said there were other children around when he took the image, and he didn’t see it as an ethically complicated moment.

In a sense, the power of the photo stems from its nature as an image of a child playing in a rough neighborhood — precisely the kind of place Halpern himself explored as a child.

Avoiding scenes of gentrification

To bring the conversation back to the Transformer Station, the advent of the gallery in 2013 helped trigger a wave of revitalization in the portion of Ohio City now known as Hingetown.

Such growth has left the area feeling denser, and livelier with trendy shops, gyms for cycling and boxing, and the spirited architecture of new buildings like the witty Church and State apartment building, designed to resemble a stack of shipping containers.

Transformer Station could be viewed as a harbinger of gentrification and displacement, but it’s also important that the gallery has enormously benefited the community and the region.

However the gallery is viewed, Halpern has avoided photographing places like it and related neighborhoods in Buffalo.

Had he come to Hingetown 20 years ago, he might have been able to make the same kind of photographs he’s exhibiting at Transformer Station now. That wouldn’t be true today. Yet Halpern said he’s not after nostalgic preservation of a hardscrabble authenticity in Buffalo. The kinds of places that attract his eye are in no danger of disappearing.

“People talk about this renaissance and the Brooklynite-type people moving in but it’s only happening in a portion of the city,’’ he said. “The majority of Buffalo is working class and not affected by gentrification. It’s a small percentage of the population that seems to be doing well now.”

Despite such statements, Halpern’s photographs are not about a search for justice or an attempt to indict the causes of poverty. Instead, they constitute a gentle insistence that a dreamlike beauty, and even moments of improbable joy and discovery, can be found in the tougher precincts of cities like Buffalo.

Those qualities make the show an experience that many Clevelanders could recognize and value, and a fine note on which the Bidwells are concluding their involvement with Transformer Station.

Installation view, 'Gregory Halpern: 19 Winters / 7 Springs'. Installation photography by Gregory Halpern.

All Images: Installation view, 'Gregory Halpern: 19 Winters / 7 Springs'. Installation photography by Gregory Halpern.