Jamestown, NY

“Photonominal ’93”

The Forum Gallery

Curated by Carlos Gutierrez-Solana, this show of contemporary photography was, paradoxically, both a broad-based survey and a carefully considered thematic exercise. The human figure became a means of disseminating the questions of eroticism, social role-playing, and intimacy raised by the 19 photographers in the show, in spite of their wide-ranging formal strategies.

John Rand’s “Bear” portraits—studio shots of hairy, heavyset men—address the need for more diversity in depictions of the ideal male figure, and serve as a document of Bear culture, a subset of gay culture. Juxtapose Rand’s portraits with Kelly R. Vancil’s “rediscoveries” of the male form—softly toned celebrations of models who must devote at least 10 of 24 hours to the upkeep of their splendid physiques. While Vancil claims that he, too, is trying to debunk conventional notions of masculinity (through the soft toning), in fact his portraits only serve to continue the tradition of depicting the male body as “sublime.” Rand’s mission is by far the more subversive and satisfying.

Ultimately, such dialogues are exactly what made this such a rewarding exhibition. Even more laden with tension is the debate among several of these photographers about questions of voyeurism and invasion. Enlarged contact sheets from Patrick Miceli are filled with casual portraits of sex workers he paid to sit for him. A handwritten narrative below each sheet tells of the encounter and gives some rather harrowing information about the ultimate fate of his models. An Hispanicprostitute, Rose, died of AIDS-related complications three months after their session. Although the models seem cheerful (probably relieved) about making such easy money, the works raise serious questions about the extent to which these people have been violated, and the purpose that these documentations serve. Adrienne Salinger’s large, color portraits from her “Teenagers In Their Bedrooms” series, 1990-91—obtained for less dubious pretenses—seem to stick more closely to the idea of empowering rather than exploiting her subjects.

The straightforward documentary work shown here, from Jeffrey Scales and M. K. Rynne, diverged even more widely in terms of how it addressed the autonomy of the subjects photographed. Scales’ shots of African-American men maintain a formal distance: they are elegant representations of cultural rituals that often cut across racial boundaries. By contrast, Rynne’s grainy enlargements of female strippers and their audiences don’t come close to substantiating her notion that these women are somehow “making sexuality an instrument of liberation and power.”

Other work stood slightly outside these issues of representation, but was no less engaging for its idiosyncrasy. A single image from Robin Tressler’s romantic “Shadow Sides” series, 1991, focused on mystery and emotion, her model emerging from a blackened void. K. Iuppa and Sarah Hart presented humorous outtakes on the rituals necessary to create femininity, including dress fittings, hair sessions, and shopping marathons—all the exquisite tortures women regularly submit to and subsidize.

Although the choices made by many of these photographers seemed to work against their stated intentions, Gutierrez-Solana succeeded admirably in contributing to the contemporary debate about photography’s social function.

Elizabeth Licata