In the days before I tried to pry meaning out of the exhibits I visited, this situation was not so problematic. Another group of black and whites featuring junky-looking teenagers in their underwear? Forget about it. Some strange roadside attraction with awkward people standing about? That's the ticket. But such elementary summations do not jog the mind, extricate intended meaning, or fill the space of one certain gal's art column.
I imagine, to all hipster horror, that in the days of Nadar, one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century, I would have been one of those philistines throwing rocks at the photography-as-art concept. The camera seems to serve a more journalistic role in the world, relating images we can't see with our own eyes and recording events in the interest of posterity. Obviously, the more traditional art forms do the same things: Pablo Picasso's cubism mirrors a world fragmenting in alienating emotions, and Judy Chicago's installations set a milestone in feminist movements of the 1970s. But to me, photography often removes the emotion of interpretation from the record, instead setting forth a documentary piece colder and more mechanical than many older mediums.
Obviously, I know I am wrong in such assumptions. I know the choice of image to be recorded has splinters of the artist's emotion involved. I also know that the methods used reflect the artist's hand and abilities. A friend of mine who is a public health administrator once said that the difference between nurses and doctors is that nurses are more interested in the human aspects of care, whereas doctors are more stimulated by the science of medicine. A similar comparison, I think, explains my troubles with photography. A photographer must not only ensure that the work is artistically relevant but also dig into the camera's mechanics. Because I have little technical aptitude, I get lost within all the considerations of f-stops, shutter speeds, and light meters. My world generally is one ruled by emotion and impulse, and the photographer's calculating mind is foreign to my way of thinking.
Yet I do not waver in knowing that photography is art, because at the end of the day, when you peel off all the theory and artspeak that surrounds it, art is a means by which we try to communicate in a new way. Simplistic and idealistic as this is, it is a core truth that serves as one of the grounding points in my life. Therefore, as difficult as I find photography to be, it is purposeful, legitimate, and, in many ways, revolutionary.
These thoughts were pushed to the forefront of my mind once again when I visited the Uta Barth: nowhere near exhibit at the Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art. It is a simple, contemplative show in which Barth presents a series of large-scale photographs taken from the same window in her home, each featuring the same backyard and the same windowpanes. This ho-hum assessment does not do justice to her work, however; in this world of hurried busy-ness absent of reflection, this artist's "new" vision is indeed an old one, but one neglected to such a degree that to stop and ponder it may be a first for some visitors.
I had to dig to reach an understanding with Barth's work. The show is easy to walk through and pass off as a set of somewhat blurry photos of her small segment of the world. Yet the more painterly qualities, such as impressionistic sweeps of the images, reeled me in. Artist Jan Tumlir would disagree with me; in her gallery essay Tumlir asserts that Barth's work is "insistently photographic," and in this opinion she is correct: The layers of image would be difficult to relay without the camera. Although the photographs feature the same window, the focal point is different in each. In one, the eye is drawn to the backyard power lines; in another, we zero in on the dirt speckles on the windowpane.
The revelation of these layers loudly establishes this art as photography, and in that I can sense the process of a technical mind. Barth, however, strays from the vast majority of photo exhibits with these pictures because she is able to imbue them with a sense of inner presence and individual vision, and in the process they betray the journalistic feel that generally accompanies photographs. The subject of Barth's work is not the window or the backyard but the way she sees this particular view, which changes according to mood and time. And that is something this struggling, emotional Luddite can relate to.
Uta Barth: nowhere near
through July 12
at Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art
12345 College Blvd., Overland Park