Think of all the random, impersonal photos you’ve taken on your cell phone during the past three months of subjects that just happen to catch your eye around the city—a massive pothole, a women in an eccentric outfit or a tree with one last remaining autumn leaf. Although amateur and spontaneous, with a bit of context, could these photos create a meaningful retrospective?
This is essentially the question behind 99 Days, the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center’s latest group exhibition, which features new work from six photographers, all created last year between Aug. 1 and Nov. 6. Regardless of what city they were shooting in or whether they were using a digital point-and-shoot, antique 8x10 view camera or their iPhone, each of the participating artists offered a small window into the current social landscape.
Not coincidentally, the selected three-month time frame marked a pretty decisive period in American history, coinciding with the final, all-important stretch of the 2012 presidential election, so it’s only befitting that the first series of photos selected to greet viewers at the entrance are Andrew Fillmore’s behind-the-scenes stills from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Both chronologically and stylistically, his images seem to set the tone for the rest of the exhibit, focusing on a single individual interacting or engulfed in their surroundings. In fact, Fillmore allows the audience to see it from several different perspectives: the TV journalist getting his makeup touched up in between takes, the politician glued to his cellphone, the spectator watching the action from the nosebleed seats and the protestor outside demanding peace and housing for all. In doing so, he manages to highlight the anxiety, tension and confusion that most of us didn’t get to see on TV behind all the celebratory balloons and confetti.
Diverting your attention from the sea of affluent white men in patriotic suits and ties is Tyler School of Art alum Stefan Abrams—more specifically, his image of a disheveled, shirtless black man strolling down a plant-lined Philly street, his jeans so low and his boxers so torn that his left buttock is completely exposed. Having probed the most dreadful nooks of Kensington, it appears, Abrams had a knack for zeroing in on captivating contradictions, whether it be a horse grazing in a vibrant field behind a row of gritty homes and a drug-recovery center or an abandoned property dubbed the “Crack Crib,” offering passersby words of inspiration: “Jesus Never Fails.” Despite the overwhelmingly bleak imagery, Abrams’ repetitive back-and-forth between life and death, beauty and filth, ultimately leaves the viewer with a vague sense of optimism.
The same cannot be said, however, of artist, Instagram enthusiast and Camden firefighter Gabriel Angemi. Perhaps not surprising given his line of work, Angemi paints an unflinchingly grim portrait of the city with one vacant, graffiti-covered building after another, usually with a lone soul walking past or slumped over on the front stoop. Among his pictures, there’s really not a single discernible shred of charm.
By the time you approach the final body of work—a stylized assortment of found oddities by local photographer Jay Muhlin—the absence of human life feels almost refreshing. If you have a dark sense of humor, you’ll have an even greater appreciation for his miscellaneous discoveries, which include a car covered in bird droppings with a pissing Calvin decal ironically affixed to the rear window.
While one might instinctively attempt to dissect the exhibition as a whole, you’re likely to take away a thousand different interpretations. After all, the participating artists weren’t given any sort of arbitrary guidelines. Rather, they simply explored their surrounding environment, photographing the places and faces that compelled them. It just so happens that during those 99 days, these six artists were particularly drawn to a similar string of depressing subjects.
In hindsight—and in this 99 Days—it all makes sense.
Through Feb. 23. The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St. philaphotoarts.org