The photographs in "Cheap Shots" show what reality looks like when it is viewed through a plastic lens. 

Shooting from the Hip

"Cheap" the cameras may be, but "cheap" their products are not. The 58 fine photographic "shots" in "Cheap Shots: Fine Art from Toy Cameras" will make you shutter with delight.

The show was organized by photographers Pam Shelor, Taylor Dabney and Alan Entin, following a conversation they had about their fulfilling experiences with the humble plastic camera. The conversation led them to invite 15 fellow artists to contribute images made from one of the many cameras, primarily manufactured in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, marketed to the amateur photographer. From the venerable Kodak Brownie that first hit the shelves in the early 1900s, to the cherished Diana (the predecessor of the more-recent Banner), to the contemporary Ansco Slim Pix, the exhibit offers a comparative study of photographs taken with each.

The Diana was the first camera to engage the artist's favor. With its irresolute, misty and unpredictable photographs, it gave an otherworldly prospect to an otherwise common scene. In fact, if there is a common denominator in this show, it is that altered reality is the exclusive property of the plastic lens. By the time Ansco, Emson Action Shot or the Nature Company began manufacturing their cameras, the lenses had become greatly clarified, while still preserving that mystery of the uncertain, as you can see in the work of Dabney, Margot Blank and Etta Edwards.

Gene Laughter's luminous sand-swept images come from a Rollfix, which, along with Laughter's own photographic technique and gentle application of color, gives his photos a compelling grainy quality. He illuminates the delicate patterns of undulating sand and wind-tossed grasses with a raking light, giving the scene an iridescent, chill air. The alien mood of his vignettes is shared with the larger scale photographs of Mica Scalin. Her hallucinatory roadscapes introduce equally the possibility of fun and menace in the form of a distant sports car bearing a scarf-wearing or shrouded driver. We presume this figure to be human, although that's not a given.

Tom Wessells and Alan Entin have returned from Europe with the stunning results of their Nature Company Panorama Cameras. Wessells' single landscape of a deserted stone house on a barren hilltop in Scotland is paradigmatic of that hard land. The stones of this now roofless house seem to call to the low mountains from which they once were quarried. In his solemn, stretched rectangle of a composition, Wessells captures something elegant and heartbreaking.

Entin's scenes are of France: a cluster of boats moored near a bridge in Chambord that seem to be receiving a blessing; two pigeons beneath a fan-shaped bower observe the camera with customary disdain. France is a place where magic constantly interferes with formality, as it does in Entin's photographs.

Two of my favorite works in the exhibition are Eric Norbom's thoroughly wonderful "Big Boy" and Anne Savedge's eerie "Niagara." Norbom's portrait of a noble Great Dane on friendly alert is both funny and a highly complex visual experience. The textures that Norbom works throughout the scene are rich and competitive. The arrangement of line and form is perfectly and intricately organized. It is a great piece.

Anne Savedge's profound scene of tourists unwittingly baptized at nature's rather furious font while witnessing the extreme ravaging spectacle of our most famous waterfall is the treasure of the show.

Unfortunately, the day I visited "Cheap Shots," "Niagara" was a buried treasure, as was Lee Bloxom's surreal series of works. A big conference board was stored in front of Savedge's work, while several sets of stacked chairs on dollies blocked Bloxom's photos from view. The conference board was light enough to push aside; the chairs were not. This is a rather significant discourtesy to the art and the artists. The Sarah D. November Art Gallery has invited these artists to enter the labor and cost, not to mention the intellectual commitment, of preparing their work for exhibition. The art that is lent to the gallery deserves the respect of an invited guest. The JCC should know better, so the following advice is not a cheap shot: Don't store stuff where you hang art; don't hang art where you store


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