San Francisco

Kenneth Shorr

San Francisco Camerawork

KENNETH SHORR’s “Happy Idiots” photographs appear as open wounds that are disturbingly brutal. The ten triptychs shown consist of media and snapshot images which have been enlarged to a 20-by-24-inch format, then torn, burned, layered, and finally violated with red paint.

Shorr’s work reveals the formal influence of his L.A. mentors Robert Heinecken and Judith Golden. But his photographs are unique in that his alterations do not function as embellishment, but rather as an aggressive, even anarchistic metamorphosis. The source material includes pictures of Kennedy, Mao, Carter and Brezhnev, the latter paired in a piece titled Carter-Brezhnev Transfer of Illness by World Powers During Ceremonial Kiss. Other motifs that frequently recur include animals—a theme familiar from Shorr’s earlier photo-narratives—and pictures of Nazis.

The political impact of “Happy Idiots” is maintained on a formal level. These crumbling, fragmented tableaux immediately bring to mind walls with layers of peeling posters, and suggest New York’s graffiti-covered subway cars. The work reaffirms the resiliency of the photographic image, for no matter how much is obscured by enlarged grain, piecemeal imagery and pigment, these pictures remain insistently photographic. Shorr’s potent forms elicit gut-level response. The burned and ripped “bullet” holes, or the red gashes delineating an infant’s lips, are effectively brutal visual metaphors for mass-culture morbidity and violence.

Beyond this immediate brutality, however, “Happy Idiots” appears somewhat vague, unclarified in the selection of content. Successful political photography draws its potency from an unrelenting specificity. Shorr uses imagery that is inherently political, but montages it into forms that too often read as puns. This imagery suggests “politicalness,” but it doesn’t function as political icon.

Although Shorr has not perfected his form, I think the direction he explores is an important one. Unlike much of the L.A. hybrid work—formally stimulating but excessively self-oriented—Shorr’s photographs aspire to more extended meanings; he experiments with the multifarious ways in which a photograph can communicate to the viewer. His work may not be resolved, but there is a sense of integrity and purpose, which is more than one can say about a lot of contemporary photography.

Hal Fischer