Denver

Andrea Modica

Sandy Carson Gallery

In Andrea Modica’s black-and-white photographs, what might seem straightforward at first glance—a girl in her bedroom, a child with a hula hoop, a nude woman on a bench—quickly provoke lingering questions: Who are these people? What are they doing? Where are they? The images suggest small, potently enigmatic narratives, and their place-name titles provide almost no clue to their meaning. Unlike photographers who wield 35 mm cameras to sweep in and capture moments as they find them, Modica uses a bulky 8 x 10 tripod camera that requires considerable time to set up. This means that she has to construct her compositions painstakingly and that her subjects not only are aware of her presence but are also her willing collaborators. Managed though the resulting scenes may be, they rarely feel contrived. The viewer accepts their staged quality because of the emotional honesty and raw humanity they convey.

This exhibition showcased thirty-seven of the Manitou Springs, Colorado, photographer’s prints made between 1986 and 2003 in what amounted to a career survey. It included examples from most of her main bodies of work, including seven selections from the “Treadwell, NY” series, 1986–99, which features a young woman named Barbara, whom Modica first encountered in 1986 while teaching at the State University of New York at Oneonta. In Treadwell, NY, 1992, the pudgy, photogenic girl, wearing a rabbit-ear headdress, her head cocked to one side, sits frowning alone among withered leaves on the side of a hill. Like a few of Modica’s other portraits, it echoes Diane Arbus, but the obvious similarities seem to come as a natural convergence of visions and not from any deliberate attempt by Modica to mimic her famous predecessor.

What became clear in this overview is that unlike, for example, Nan Goldin’s photographs, which focus on the photographer and her social milieu, Modica’s images are not bound together by their subject matter. Although people and animals often populate her works, she also makes what could be called landscapes and even still lifes, like one of a few works titled Fountain, CO, this one from 2003, an arrangement of month-old dried carrots whose twisted forms bizarrely suggest disembodied legs. Moreover, Modica does not rely on visual or conceptual gimmicks. As seemingly diverse as the images are, they all carry her distinctive stamp, a sensibility derived from several common threads, including those mysterious mini-narratives.

Though Modica uses only available light (either natural or artificial), she often manages to focus it in dramatic, Caravaggesque ways, as in Colorado Springs, CO, 1999, in which a glow bathes the top of a prone nude woman while the rest of the room remains forbiddingly dark and shadowy. The presence of nature can be felt in many, if not most, of these scenes, sometimes announcing itself through death, as in Chrystola, CO, 2000, a haunting image of twin calves lying dead on the snow-covered ground after stillbirth the day before.

It is also essential to note a series of exquisitely executed platinum-palladium prints that reveal extraordinary details, from the minute scratches on a tabletop in another Fountain, CO, 2003, to individual blades of grass in Umbria, Italy, 2003, to faint ripples in a swimming pool in Oneonta, NY, 1994—which has to be among the most delicately nuanced depictions of water captured on film. In the face of the digital onslaught, Modica has stuck with old-fashioned photographic techniques, yet her images still resonate with an unmistakable contemporaneity—a contradiction that gives them much of their power.

Kyle MacMillan