Wednesday, June 20, 2007
New work at Nelson Hancock Gallery
"Three girls on Friday night," Nelson Hancock, All rights reserved.
Artist/gallerist Nelson Hancock’s “Kamchatka: Photographs from Russia's Far East,” are on display till July 28th at his gallery in DUMBO. A highly accomplished photographer, Hancock brings an anthropologist’s sensibility (he has a PhD from Yale) to these brilliantly lucid & direct black & white portraits.
“Most in the US who have heard of Kamchatka at all know it as a good place to launch an attack on North America in the Cold War board game Risk,” [Hancock writes]. “Russians consider the region the consummate backwater; the provinces are one thing, but Kamchatka is beyond provincial. It is beyond Siberia, beyond everything, on Russia’s Pacific, about a thousand miles north of Japan.”
One of the many things I like about Hancock’s portraits is that this “otherness” is not the point, as it so often is in National Geographic-style depictions of other cultures. Hancock’s decision to use black and white and shoot in large format is part of this, but mostly it’s a matter of approach. There’s no unspoken pretense that these people are any more “exotic,” or unfamiliar with cameras & representation than people in, say, Michigan. The pictures are not trophies. They’re about the subjects, not the photographer and his excellent adventure.
"I-95 Branford," Keith Johnson, All rights reserved.
I’m sorry I missed Keith Johnson’s recent show at the same gallery. Reflecting a somewhat different anthropological approach, Johnson’s pictures matter-of-factly document oddities that don’t seem to know they’re odd – turf farms, for example, or shrink-wrapped fields or giant plastic whales. He says, “I am endlessly entertained by what I see” and “humor is a major component.” But there’s much more to his pictures than a quick laugh.
Working mostly in landscape mode, Johnson may share to some extent the intention to shock one feels behind Duchamp’s famous urinal. But I’d guess the proportion of cynical to wide-eyed in that work is higher than in Johnson’s. Johnson doesn’t seem angry. He seems to have a sympathy for absurdity. With no obvious axes to grind, his photography is more like a form of pure play. After all, from somebody’s point of view, the weirdness makes sense.