A captivating exhibition at Transformer Station explores the allure of gazing at strangers
It’s impolite to stare at strangers, for good reason. Prolonged staring can be seen as a sign of aggression, or perhaps unwelcome sexual attention.
Photographers, however, ignore such social norms, and that’s a good thing. If they behaved like the rest of us, we wouldn’t have exhibitions such as the Transformer Station’s excellent new “Unknown: Pictures of Strangers.”
The show explores the allure of gazing at people we don’t know, or, to put it more precisely, people whom the photographers didn’t know when they captured their images.
The exhibition also reveals new facets in the sensibilities of collectors Fred and Laura Bidwell, who own Transformer Station and use it to display works from their personal collection or new works they commission from contemporary artists.
The current show contrasts sharply with “Redheaded Peckerwood,” which closed June 14, and which focused on Christian Patterson’s morbid and morally ambiguous explorations of the 1950s Charlie Starkweather killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming.
“Pictures of Strangers” has its edgy undercurrents, but the main thrust is to present a new angle on the traditional genre of portraiture by exploring what happens when the subject is anonymous and unknown to the photographer.
Works by a half dozen other contemporary photographers, including, Barbara Probst, Arne Svenson, Andrew Bush, Doug Rickard, Adam Magyar, Richard Renaldi, Todd Hido, Mrjana Vrbaski and Lawick Muller, round out the compelling and highly satisfying exhibition.
Highlights include Magyar’s spectacular 11-minute video shot in super slow motion from a Tokyo subway car as it slowed to a stop in a station.
The video allows you to peer deeply at the faces of people whose images move from right to left across the screen, giving you a brief and revealing glance at each one, before they vanish and are replaced by fresh faces in a seemingly endless river of humanity.
Such works and others in the exhibition appear to be motivated not only by the deep satisfactions of people watching, but by impulses that include voyeurism, a desire to express facets of the artist’s self through images of others, or to explore and contradict the kinds of snap judgments we make of strangers to determine whether they are friendly or threatening.
The exhibition wraps all of these potential threads in a highly compelling and handsomely installed visual package.
Hamilton’s hauntingly beautiful contribution is a wall-size installation of numerous photographs of strangers she took last March at the Art Dealers Association of America exhibition in New York.
She set up a photo booth in which she invited strangers to pose on the far side of a sheet of plastic that was opaque from their side, but translucent from her side.
She instructed each subject to touch the sheet with a part of his or her body, and then she snapped a portrait.
The result is that only the portions of the subjects’ bodies in contact with the scrim – usually a face or a hand – are in focus; the rest of the images are softly blurred.
Printed on large sheets of strong but extremely lightweight Japanese Gampi paper, the portraits fill a high wall in the Transformer gallery in the manner of a 19th-century Salon-style display that echoes crowded official art exhibitions of that era.
The effect is that instead of participating in the making of a portrait by gazing at Hamilton and her lens, her subjects are captured in their own private worlds in ways that appear to portray their inner lives – not the images of themselves that they project to the world. The photo booth, while appearing to be an anonymous setting, became a way.
Pinned to the wall instead of hung in frames, the Hamilton portraits move softly on air currents in the gallery in ways that impart an almost eerie sense of breathing life to the installation. The effect is arresting and captivating.
Davis has made his reputation by using an 8-by-10-inch view camera mounted on a tripod to make singular, refined images.
While experimenting with a new digital camera, he found he was more excited about shooting video with it than solitary, precisely framed images.
At the invitation of the Bidwells, Davis visited Cleveland last summer and spent 10 days cruising streets in the city and its suburbs taking videos of residents – with their permission – as they walked on sidewalks.
Again, as with Hamilton, Davis’s images of strangers appear to reveal a great deal about his subjects, who were completely unknown to him, except that they agreed to be filmed.
There’s a handsome young couple strolling in Cleveland Heights, a man in a motorized wheelchair, a roller-skater who skims around cracks and bumps with astonishing grace.
As these and other unnamed subjects stride or roll along, the environments around them unfurl, revealing the rugged charm of a battered, post-industrial city, and the leafy splendor of its inner-ring suburbs.
Davis’s mesmerizing video makes it easy to feel affection for both the people he records, and the places through which they move.
The videos have deep art historical resonances that include their frieze-like compositional style, which recalls ancient Roman and Greek temple and sarcophagus relief sculptures. Davis’s images also recall the 19th-century motion studies of Eadward Muybridge, whose work anticipated modern cinema.
But mostly, what you feel watching the loops in Davis’s installation is that his subjects, who seem unaware of his presence, have subtly given you, the viewer, permission to gaze at them.
The generosity of this gift, which made Davis’s work possible, is palpable, and it makes you, the viewer, feel grateful and sympathetic to the strangers whose images move through the video.
Any exhibition that evokes such emotions is very much worth seeing.