IMAGE AS ISSUE AT ISSUE
by R. Eric Davis
The photographer's composition affects our perception of fact and "truth" in photography is further hampered today by editorial de-
cision and computer-generated "photo-illustrations". The term "documentary photography" was not coined until the early twentieth
century to distinguish between "factual" imagery and others, however, as the original intent of photography was, more or less, to
serve as a scientific record; permanent, visually "real" documentation of important people. places. and events. By the civil war.
photographic images began to undergo a transformation. For the first time citizens were visually exposed on a wide and somewhat
immediate basis to the horrors of war. From then on, projects like the photographic survey of the western states by Timothy O'Sul-
livan and William Henry Jackson, Jacob Riis' New York Tenements, Lewis Hine's sweat shop children, and even Ansel Adams'
preciositic landscapes, were used as propaganda for social improvement. As museum began collecting photographs, documentary
images underwent another transformation. How would hard-edged, "factual" work fit into aesthetically oriented collections? Could
or should these documents be judged as documents and art.
"Image as Issue", at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, attempts to answer this question. Overwhelmed by a numbing barrage
of shocking imagery, we are likely to dismiss both image and message. Such sentiment implies that we are, as a society, un-
shockable, unaffected, and apathetic to social issues. With the onslaught of media information, the photography of, say, Jacob Riis
is enfeebled by journalistic portrayals of the homeless. Balance between content and aesthetics has long been debated in all the arts.
Critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau has written of "discourse" and "commodity" value in photography: two useful indications for
placement of the works in IAI. "Discourse" value here will refer to that which promotes an intended message while "commodity"
value will relate the works as aesthetic objects.
Pamela Pitt and Nancy Floyd come closest to realizing the "discourse" of documentary photography. They have a shared interest in
the objectification of women and the violence that it can lead to. Their messages seem apparent, but in Pitt's case are mixed. In an
attempt to elevate otherwise mundane images, her partial use of hand-coloring smacks of artifice. Only Stop the War on Women
achieves what is assumed to be the photographer's intent: a video image of a woman being attacked juxtaposed with a feminist rally
hits the mark. Nancy Floyd's Stopping Power series is a continuation of Pitt's war, if women will not be afforded appropriate pro-
tection under the law from rape and other attacks, then they will use force to defend themselves. According to Floyd, this force is
not just physical but is deadly. The artist, however, worries about her work's potential for appropriation by pro-gun lobbies. While
up-ending sexual stereotypes, images of women posturing with guns are no less threatening than their male counterparts even when
handled safely and responsibly. More frightening than the gender of the gun owner is the implied message of intended violence.
Similar problems daunt Thomas C. Waters, Paul Hester. and Judy Bankhead. All three cross the line from fairly straight forward
images and issues into the aesthetic/commodity arena. Waters "clip-art"-style presentation does not help already muddled work.
Without a didactic aside, only Silence=Death approximates a stand on the alleged moral contradictions of homosexuality, but its
presentation almost kills the messenger. Within an appropriate viewing distance you can almost read the pornographic text con-
tained in most of Waters' work but, the image only becomes cohesive at a distance of 10-12 feet. At that point, though, whatever
the intended message may be is lost on the viewer.
Paul Hester appears to be trying to fit existing work into the exhibition's concept, manipulating the surface into an aesthetic which
overrides the social issue. Hester seems concerned with gender and the body, not individual personality as the faces of his models
are obliterated. Her Models Are Found Inadequate Before Her Radiance suggests that the balance of sexual roles is beginning to
become a bit more even. Overkill and abstract titles may prevent some viewers from spending more than a few passing moments
with the work.
Bankhead's photographs aren't obscured by manipulated surfaces, but by her good intentions. Though her images are well-crafted
and more fun to look at, they are the least connected to the idea of image as issue. Made in China could be construed as a com-
mentary on America's reliance on overseas of the most trivial, consumer products and perhaps on the plasticity of hot dogs and
foreign-ness of their contents. America's military icons are reduced to playthings in Home of the Brave. But is this a critique of the
military or the ripping off of Native American lands? Which is it? If an image is so heavily codified will the viewer may misun-
derstand the artist's intention? Can ambiguity be a strength?
Cara DeBusk's video installation. Memory of the Body, is neither overly didactic nor heavily laden with an aesthetic sensibility. The
video depicts a buxom, exercise guru who exhorts women to push themselves: go, go, go..feeeel the bunt Think about how much
better you will feel once you're in top physical shape. The steady drone of the video is not geared simply towards fitness, but a
sexual state of appearance and being. Memory concentrates on a personal struggle that many women endure: how to fit into (mostly
male) fantasized concepts of appearance versus the still pervasive Becky Homecky ideals of the fifties. On shelves protruding from
the gallery wall rest mysterious boxes that you are politely asked (actually compelled) to open. Within each Pandora's box is further
evidence of the daily conflict between child-like innocence and adult sexuality; images of the artist as a child are pitted against birth
Huerta, Benito. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228036/. Accessed May 23, 2013.