Catherine Wagner

The Oakland Museum

The subject of Catherine Wagner’s most recent body of photographs is the American classroom. Wagner’s self-assigned purpose was to “photograph the diversity of American education within the context of the classroom.” Not unlike her earlier series about the construction of San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center, this work is anchored in a concept that is deceptively prosaic. If the series’ premise is simple, the subjects she selects are anything but facile. But Wagner’s technical perfection, strong eye for composition, and well-honed intuition make this intrinsically inexpressive subject matter visually potent. She is able to create images rich in description and nuance, and still maintain an illusion of neutrality.

The 20 black-and-white photographs that comprise the “American Classroom” series cover a range of educational settings, from a nursery school in a Los Angeles synagogue to the wind tunnel classroom at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. These diverse, unpeopled educational environments are full of instructional props, from the stuffed birds perched above a blackboard in an elementary-school science room to the monotonous headset-furnished cubicles of a language lab at the Defense Foreign Language Institute. Despite the variation in tools and visual aids—and occasional evidence of recent human presence—these classrooms all seem to support an almost relentless notion of order. Even the nursery school, filled with all sorts of visual stimuli, manifests an aura of obsessive arrangement.

In both “The American Classroom” and “George Moscone Site,’Wagner photographs in a documentary style. Yet her photographs transcend the limits and responsibilities of the genre; despite the apparent simplicity, beneath the suffice of Wagner’s work lurks a psychological complexity. The subject of the ”Moscone Site“ project was commonplace, but the photographs were elegant, Zen-like constructions—juxtapositions of man-made and organic elements—rather than documents of urban gentrification. The ”American Classroom“ photographs present viewers with the visual evidence of the learning environment, but these images of ordered, no-nonsense rooms convey much more than the mere ”look" of the learning environment in the ’80s.

As meditations on the educational experience, the “American Classroom” photographs are funny, ironic, strange, and perhaps even a touch nostalgic. The images suggest a curious kind of progress: blackboards and wooden desks, the educational icons of one generation, are augmented in the next generation by closed-circuit television and overhead projectors, and by unrecognizable technological paraphernalia in the next. What is curious in all this, especially given Wagner’s decision to photograph speciality schools, from acupuncture to dog-grooming institutions, is how much these environments really have in common, and how they are all based on the idea of the “model” classroom.

“The American Classroom” is too rich in irony and humor to be read simply as a critique of education or its environment in late-20th-century America. A sense of human idiosyncrasy, and our faith that education can overcome its setting, effectively undercut the specter of stifling order and technology that permeates many of these images.

Hal Fischer