Photo Arts Center Tackles Urban Living With "The Greater Areas"

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2011

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Seat taken: Will Steacy’s images, which get into the city’s industrial strata, are the show’s timeliest.

Photo by WILL STEACY

Hot on the heels of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ Urbanism show, the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center joins the conversation with an exhibition that shoots an introspective angle on urban life. Less about city structures than about who’s standing between them, The Greater Area tracks twitches in the mental ether of the city’s anxious inhabitants. If Urbanism conspicuously lacked the human figure, then Greater Area artists Caitlin Teal Price and Gregory Halpern give us people, while Will Steacy delivers a meditation on the spaces that people like to forget.

In “Annabell, Annabell” (selections of which were recently shown at Gallery 339), D.C.-based photographer Caitlin Teal Price presents a suite of nine photographs that draw from a tradition of portraiture. Exacting in composition and dramatically lit, her images owe something to Edward Hopper’s paintings of urban malaise. Women of a certain age gaze purposefully past the camera, their expressions as inscrutable as the precise vintage of their monochromatic office clothes. Instead of Hopper’s streetlamps or diners, Teal Price poses her women amidst snaking highway overpasses or striding through vacant parking garages. Poised, faces turned hungrily toward the sun, the photographs suggest moments stolen from an even bleaker office landscape of desk jobs and cubicles. The solitary shots of women are broken-up by stark images of the landscapes in which they pose; as crisply tidy as macquettes, these spaces are either recently vacated or still waiting for their protagonists to arrive.

Completing the female/male binary in the show, Rochester, N.Y.-based photographer Gregory Halpern’s “A” features a series of 16 photographs of men in the American rust belt. Shot in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Omaha and Detroit, Halpern, like Teal Price, also alternates between photographing the human subject and then its vacant, architectural counterpart. Where Teal Price favors brilliant light and steely angles, Halpern’s images are softer with backgrounds that blur to fantasy. In one photograph, a useless gate in a vacant lot seems to point toward a secret garden, while in another, a dead tree on a green lawn looks as magical as J.K. Rowling’s Whomping Willow. Unlike his softened landscapes, the men photographed tend to be of a distinctly rough variety. In “Bloody Nose,” a shirtless man turns aggressively toward the camera, the soft focus behind him a sharp contrast to the threat of violence seeping from his wound.

Settling into cracks, car wrecks, and the industrial strata of the city, Will Steacy’s 11 photographs from the series “Down These Mean Streets,” linger on castaways; which is not to say that he doesn’t dote on a sawed-off bench as if it were a miracle wrested from the rubble of an urban wasteland. Steacy’s photos may be of detritus, but they are luminous, not hopeless. A power plant glows with as much mystery as a stage coach in a fog; a boarded-up house projects enough atmosphere to star in a film noir gone full color. Hitting gallery walls in a city just drying out from Hurricane Irene, Steacy’s photos may be the timeliest in the show, their subject matter chiming eerily with recent news footage of displaced river sludge, mounds of trash, and wind-ravaged streets. His images may cue memories of natural disasters, but upon closer examination, we have, as usual, only ourselves to blame. The car in the photo was crashed then abandoned by a person (not a hurricane), and the dissection of the bench most certainly has a human touch (not the hand of God). Shooting only after dark means that even the light in Steacy’s photos must be man-made—all the better by which to view our dystopian twilight.

Through Oct. 29. The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St. 215.232.5678. philaphotoarts.org

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