Portfolio Showcase Volume 13 | Curator’s Statement

 

Thinking over this year’s Portfolio Showcase submissions, I was surprised by how many are keenly relevant to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The photographs were made and submitted long before any of us heard of the novel coronavirus and were juried as it was just beginning to be discussed. A wide variety of types of photography were submitted to the competition—landscapes, formal exploration, abstraction, documentary, staged works, still life—but relationships and emotions were dominant topics and yielded some of the strongest portfolios. Perhaps the national mood was already turning inward, perhaps it was merely chance. Either way, the chosen portfolios have much to offer us as we ponder our current situation.

 

Intimacy and distance are topics addressed by Carl Bower, David Obermeyer, and Suzette Bross. Bower’s powerful yet reserved portraits in Private Fears document individuals reflecting on the anxieties that shackle them and shake them to their very cores. Before asking his subjects to bare their emotions to him and his camera, he shares his own fears with them. The intimacy that Bower established is rewarded with deeply insightful portraits. David Obermeyer’s shots of at-risk young people are more documentary in aim, and his sitters far more guarded. These youths, enrolled in a church program that helps them reconnect with society through full-time employment, are wary about revealing any vulnerabilities. In Suzette Bross’s series For the Glass, fingertips and faces press against the glass of a scanner. Her sitters seem to try to establish physical contact through the picture plane, an impossible task and a poignant one in this time of physical distancing. Bross prints these images larger than life size, enhancing the tension between intimacy and a sense of remove.

 

The closeness—which sometimes become claustrophobia—of family and home is explored by three of the selected artists. Sharon Draghi’s staged and candid color shots of her family are set in her home and on her street, echoing the collapsed universes and state of interiority most of us have been experiencing during quarantine.  Colby’s black-and-white series The Fragility of Fatherhood subtly suggests the depth of love, hope, but also uncertainty and restlessness within the tight bond between the artist and his son. A similar attachment is the subject of black-and-white portraits by Anna Grevenitis of the artist and her daughter, who has Down syndrome. Contrasted with their closeness is the presumed curious gaze of the outsider/viewer. It is unabashedly returned by Grevenitis, who stares directly into the camera.

 

As sheltering in place orders caused  us to withdraw into our homes, cities became skeletons stripped of the chaotic, life-giving flow of people and traffic. This emptiness is presaged in Dave Jordano’s haunting scenes of a deserted Cleveland at night. Here and there a lone figure guards an open convenience store, and the palette is warm, but the barren streets nonetheless invoke an otherworldly chill. A stunning contrast—and a reminder of the “old normal”—is found in At Table by Glenna Jennings. These vibrant scenes evoke not just the gustatory but also the social pleasures of dining.

 

The final two selected portfolios, quite different in tone and approach than those discussed above, speak to the history and nature of photography. Mid-twentieth century charts for establishing exposure and other settings are the starting point for Andy Mattern’s Average Subject/Medium Distance, who digitally strips away their explanatory notations. The once functional, physical objects—analog tools for analog photography—become self-referential digital photographs—objects both beautiful and ironic. Walter Plotnick’s Surprise Inside also combines analog and digital processes and harkens back to an earlier photographic era. His Bauhaus-inspired montages, printed on opened cardboard boxes, echo in their composition and choice of imagery the energy, physical release, and delightful surprise of the act of opening the boxes.

 

It was a pleasure to peruse all the submissions. There was so much strong and meaningful work that it was difficult to narrow my selections down to ten portfolios. I congratulate all who entered and thank you for your dedication to photography. Now, more than ever, the world needs artists to help us reflect, analyze, and understand our emotions and to give us moments of sheer visual joy.

 

Barbara Tannenbaum

Chair of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and Curator of Photography
The Cleveland Museum of Art

 

 

Image Credit: Troy Colby