The Road to Nowhere (part II from FotoFest)

RoadToNowhere, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

The next exhibition we attended was called “The Road to Nowhere?” and was held at Winter Street Studios. Perhaps the biggest objection I have in this work lies in the title-though our trusty GPS would tend to agree and conspire against us. Allow me to explain. After attending the shows at the FotoFest headquarters, we punched in the address of the studio and were on our way. The Winter Street Studios were down what could only be described as a “dirt-ish” road, which ran alongside a rail road track in what was a highly industrial area. Luckily Kathy knew such places existed in Houston as I was completely out of my league here-I didn’t know Houston even had such places, let alone the “barking” our GPS would generate about driving into one-this “dirt road-ish” alley did not make our GPS happy, let me tell you. Location aside, this was another exceptional exhibit although, “The Road to Nowhere?” could best be described as “All Roads Should Lead Here” since this was some really compelling original cutting edge “wow” kind of work (GPS barking aside.)

Upon entering the space, we encountered the work of one of my current favorite photographers, Brian Ulrich. In his series “Dark Stores, Ghost Boxes and Dead Malls” Ulrich assembled strong night-based architectural work featuring abandoned “big box” stores-places like dead Targets, old Value City’s, even abandoned Sax Fifth Avenues are not immune. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see how instantly recognizable an abandoned Circuit City is or how easily recalled a dead Target store comes to be, but this work goes way beyond that. It’s a testament to our consumerism, our recent “economic bubbles” corporate melt-downs and such-Ulrich plays this out on a well-executed strongly composed canvas for all the world to see. Once you see this work, you really take away a sense of “big” and “empty” as his use of space, his execution and compositional choices really emphasize this. This type of work is also representative of a new trend, almost an entire new movement in photography, one that I like the call “the new breed of consumerism” with focus on the shopper, the pawns in the economic downturn, the “great game” of Wall Street, the global credit crunch and the housing crisis. Gone are the pretty flowers, the glowing housewife images all smiling with pearls and beads, the pretty suburbia with the well-manicured lawns and white picket fences-left in the wake are the empty big boxes, the foreclosures, the hollow reminders of the shallow existence we all led during the “boom” years. It’s very much a “rub your face in it” kind of existence, gritty work without being “dirty” but, perhaps, by reminding us how “dirty” we have become as a society-and that’s dirty in the true sense of the word-using it up and spitting it out, almost like garbage for a new decade. This work reminds us of the true “consumers” we have become-eating it up and spitting it out until there’s nothing left but the appetite. Welcome to the new state of economic affairs-it’s not same as it ever was, now it’s more like a “wish you were here” or even an “is anybody out there? Does anybody care?” sense of melancholy abandonment. It’s a hunger, it’s a void, it’s a frame left from a previously hollow existence pitched up like a tent for all the world to see and it plays out in Ulrich’s work to the hilt.

Perhaps equally compelling and along the same lines is the work of Tim Davis. Davis puts a creative spin on the consumerism aesthetic by showing us typical looking houses-houses with reflections in the windows. Each house bears the “mark” of the new breed of consumer culture-the Jiffy Lube sign reflected in the front window, or a Burger King crown showing up in an otherwise suburban-esque picture window. It’s a more “they’re creeping up to get us” kind of focus for this type of work but one that’s no less effective, not to mention the technical skills of Davis don’t hurt any either. These are well-executed images born of a common thread-signs, reflections, consumers lurking within the boundaries of otherwise “ordinary” photos. Davis is definitely one to watch.

Greta Pratt’s series Liberty presented a multi-cultural view of people dressed up in a Statue of Liberty outfit. These images were not only creative but they were glorious portraits-perhaps one of the downfalls of FotoFest, at least how it exists in the new digital era, is that people tend to want to look at work online. Pratt’s images were one of several bodies of work that I would have to say work against that logic-these are images that really benefit from an up close an in-person viewing. Much of the subtlety, the softness, the skill (in fact) is “lost in the translation” of the digital realm. This is work that, I can only hope, you get to see up close and in person someday as it’s worth viewing.

Eirik Johnson’s work from the Pacific Northwest was a big draw for me, in part because I’ve never been to that region of the country. In his series “Sawdust Mountain” Johnson explores the nature of the logging community in the region-how it’s both a blessing and a curse-since the towns rely upon logging for income yet all but rape the land of resources over the course of logging for profit. After viewing the work, and not knowing the backstory, I’d have to say that Johnson presents a compelling look into a world previously unknown to me. It’s the kind of portraiture that’s both tough and tender, ready to tell a story, and be a bit in your face about it, yet oddly shy about shouting you down as well. It’s that sort of visual tension that can really make a body of work a success and, I’d have to say, Johnson’s work really transported me into his world, if only few a few minutes.

Myra Greene’s series “My White Friends” was a well-executed portrait series-I especially liked her interior lighting and overall mood of the images. Here again is the multi-cultural viewpoint, though this time a bit more subtle yet not any less effective. She brings a consistent view to her work, it’s a very tight portrait series that’s very compelling.

Sheila Pree Bright’s work was nothing short of spectacular for me. Her series called “Suburbia” is one that, on the surface, might sound like the type of work anybody else might do. It’s her execution that really floored me here-Bright is one of those photographers capable of capturing that elegant, almost lyrical quality of light, and her attention to subtle detail really comes over very well. In her “Untitled #12” image, there is a woman sitting in bed, reading Business Week magazine, a lamp all aglow next to her, her cell phone resting by her bedside. The glow from the lamp, the quality of the light with the combined warm light from the lamp contrasted with the cool of the cell phone really adds so much to this image. These are images you can just continue to look at a drink up thanks to the quality of the light and her choices as a photographer. She has another image shot in a bathroom that features a “white on white” style decor, with texture from a bath rug and soft window light coming in to flood the room-it’s just quiet elegance, understated beauty, lyrical light and rich texture all over the place. I might be a sucker for that kind of work and, I’m sure it goes out a fashion or will at some point, but I absolutely love it. It’s really the kind of photography I could just sit and look at all day long.

Jeff Brouws is one of those people I absolutely hate because he finds (and makes the most of) the best graffiti ever. I have a photographer friend Craig who is like that too-wherever he goes he comes back with the best damn graffiti shots, so much so that I often tease him-accusing him of “going out with chalk and doing it himself.” I think maybe after seeing Brouws’ work, Craig might have to hang up his chalk, as Brouws found some of the best graffiti around. Among the examples: “USA Talk About Race and Poverty” on a torn apart post-Katrina home in New Orleans, and a sign that reads: “Ain’t it Funny how the Factory doors close round the time the school doors close round the time the doors of the jail cell open up to greet you.” Wow. Talk about chalk-envy! That’s one for the record books. Great slogans aside, he had another series in the gallery featuring shots of surveillance cameras, kind of shooting back and those shooting you, so Brouws goes down as another from FotoFest to watch and learn from, both for his creativity and his luck in finding damn good graffiti.

Next was the work of An-My Le, a photographer who applied to go overseas as part of the “embeddeds” but was denied, instead shooting in California in the vicinity of training facilities and “fake” Iraqi villages. Proving that “silver is far from dead” these were large-scale silver gelatin prints masterfully done-more work that’s best seen up close and personal. The rich tonality and deep shadows of silver aren’t lost the way new digital media can sometimes obscure them.

Some of the most novel, original, and creative series of FotoFest were included in this show. Called “The Other Night Sky” photographer Trevor Paglen basically shot back-the work consisted of images of the night sky with classified satellites and aircraft flying within it. This work was also a fascinating blend of the real fine art as well as the social documentary-the use of space and fields of color really make these images pop and give them an almost painterly feel while the underlying, almost equally compelling message about war, society and government secrets adds a social documentary credibility to otherwise elegant images featuring expanses of space. Kudos to Paglen for showing us not only the night sky in its glory but what the government is up to while we’re maybe not paying such close attention.

Paul Shambroom presented a series called “Shrines: Public Weapons in America” examines the public display of our weapons. This is one of those series that is perhaps a more “photographer’s photography” type of series, as only a photographer would really appreciate how difficult it might be to amass such a collection. Shambroom does it well, showing us glimpses of air defense and cruise missiles out on parade.

Erika Larsen’s series “Young Blood” examines the world of the young hunter-everything from “guns to glory” including a “first kill” shot-it’s hard not to look at this kind of stuff and *not* see the juxtaposition of the young and the dead as some kind of statement, indeed Larsen does just that, but the series shows an impartial view. The kills are sort of cut and dry, speaking for themselves rather than shouting at us and that’s a much appreciated presentation for this kind of material. Along the same “guns and glory” line was Greg Stimac’s still work featuring shots of people shooting guns. In Stimac’s work, one really gets the sense of being an outsider looking into a foreign world, at least that comes across, as the images are less about the focus on the young and more about the modern gun culture.

Perhaps my favorite Stimac series was called “Mowing the Lawn.” It featured shots of people, you guess it, mowing the lawn. While this might sound trite and, frankly a bit boring, my description is not going to do it justice. This work really brought a smile to my face-it was creative, different, fresh, obvious yet so “smack upside your head” it was almost laughable yet serious and contemplative all at the same time. The irony of just showing us people mowing lawns-different lawns, different people, different places, was not lost on me and the work was very well-done. As they say in the movies, I liked it, I really liked it though, here again, it was one of those things you just had to see for yourself.

A video installation in this exhibit was called “91/2 hours to Santa Fe” and featured the footage of Nic Nicosia driving from Dallas to Santa Fe. This is yet another body of work along the lines of being obvious yet compelling at the same time. Nicosia drove with cameras mounted on his car and shoot footage of the drive across Texas and New Mexico. In a sort of “everything, even the kitchen sink is included” no holes barred style of film, this is democracy of the camera in action-nothing gets highlighted but nothing, too, gets “low lighted.” It’s all her, plain as day, to enjoy on screen, and I have to admit, I found myself sitting, resting, and watching some of those miles just rolling on by. I can’t say that I’d want to watch four thousand hours of something like this but, as an inclusion in FotoFest, it was a welcome break from the norm.

Victoria Sambunaris had large format scenic landscapes along the lines of “consumerism” work-with images of dams, mining, quarries, and oil pipelines, this was perhaps the most “you have to see this in person” series of work included in the exhibitions this year. The detail, scale, and perspective of the view camera is in great hands with Sambunaris, making this work both compelling beautiful, technically proficient, and thought provoking all rolled into one. I almost feel a sense of sadness looking at the FotoFest book, as the reproductions do not do justice to the original prints and the land is scared in such horrible ways.

Christina Seely’s work, Lux, was another completely compelling body of work that was “brilliant” (if you’ll excuse the pun) in more ways than one. Named after the system for measuring illumination, Seely is photographing “bright lights big city” in an entirely new and novel way. She is actually photographing human-made light emanating from the earth’s surface and the environmental impact of the carbon dioxide produced by the world’s wealthiest countries, as evident in the brightest areas on a satellite map-attempting to photograph the 40 brightest cities in the world over time, showing us the global ramifications of consumption. It’s compelling and beautiful work and I can only wish Seely nothing but success in completing her study.

So, GPS barking aside, the “Road to Nowhere?” was a unique compelling exhibit I would highly recommend.

Next in the series, on FotoFest, I’ll introduce you to the Discoveries of the Meeting Place and take you to “Gallery Row” for my review of the work on display there.

Until next time…


  1. mythopolis
    April 21, 2010 / 11:46 am

    This was an interesting read – the many ways various artists are focusing their attention. I would like to watch the Dallas-Santa Fe footage! Also like your photo!

  2. Carol
    April 21, 2010 / 5:18 pm

    Thanks, Mythopolis!

    The Dallas -> Santa Fe footage was oddly compelling. One of those things you don't think you'd like but find yourself watching and really enjoying.

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