A new photography exhibition at the Black History Museum reveals spirits, inner and otherworldly.
Life Through a Lens
statement made by P.H. Polk, one of the four photographers currently featured at the Black History Museum, seems an appropriate opening to any exhibition of photography: "Anybody can take a snapshot, but it takes an artist to make a picture." Most agree that photography is not only a valid form of fine art, but an extraordinary medium to truly capture and immortalize our everyday reality and beyond. Much more than a recording device, the camera offers an exciting method to see and compose the world. "4 Views of Color in Black and White," co-curated by Debra Dilworth and Charles Bethea, speaks to this ability of photography. Featuring the work of Polk, Dilworth, Theodore S. Holmes and Regina H. Boone, four perspectives are presented of the life and times of mainly black people from the 1930s through the present day, with an emphasis on life in Richmond. While each artist works from the same premise of capturing the experience of ordinary living and employs traditional black-and-white format, the results of their respective projects are distinctly varied.
Dilworth seems to be more interested in the formal and technical aspects of photography than in simply documenting Richmond life and human spontaneity. Carefully composed and often manipulated, her works sometimes do not include people at all. In "The Light in the Bathroom" (1996), the viewer peers through a door frame to an older bathroom with a claw-foot tub, radiator and tiled floor. At first the room appears empty but on closer inspection, the faint trace of a human pulling herself out of the tub is perceived. By manipulating the film in the developing stage, Dilworth nearly obliterates this lone life in the tub, rendering the being an apparition a mellow, poetic statement on the ephemeral quality of life.
Holmes sees himself as "a student of life," studying people and their physical surroundings. His photographs seem more politically and socially charged "Man, Son, Protest, and Public" (1996), for example, pictures a scene from the Arthur Ashe Monument rally. The viewer is positioned behind a black man and his son, and we look over their shoulders to a policeman on horseback, Confederate flags, white protesters, and, ultimately, the center of the controversy, the monument itself. Holmes has developed a sophisticated manner of composing his photographs by often shooting the backs of the subjects at eye level so that the viewer is drawn into the scene, becoming an intimate participant.
Boone's photographs focus mainly on children. Each captures the energy, emotions, joys and tribulations of childhood. Whether the youth frolic in water, sit for a haircut, or hug one another in uninhibited glee, Boone's artistic eye and camera look at these small moments and promote them to larger, more powerful ones.
The grand patriarch of the exhibition is Polk, the Alabama-born photographer who documented elements of black genre mainly during the 1930s and '40s. From a portrait of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to a photo of rural children, Polk was a master in probing through the exterior to reveal the inner spirit. "George Moore," a fine example of this ability, reveals an old man who peers at us beneath the rim of his large, tattered hat. Scruffy yet defiant, he unabashedly looks into the camera with knowing eyes that have seen many things and with wrinkles that speak of a life hard-lived.
As the title of the exhibition implies, these are photographs of black life and black experience, but skin color is not really the key element that is emphasized. Celebrating, protesting, eating, speaking, walking, bathing, being "4 Views" speaks of an experience that we all share; it speaks of everything it means to be
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