A new show at Etherton Gallery documents struggles for freedom, both at home and abroad.
By Margaret Regan
WHEN YOUNG BLACK people were sitting in at the lunch counters of the South and going limp in the arms of beefy cops, when jeering whites blocked the doorways to swimming pools and schools, Danny Lyon was there.
When cops gave equality the finger, when blacks buried four little girls blown up by a bomb, when soldiers manhandled a black photographer, trying to cheat history of his photos, Lyon and his camera, luckily for the rest of us, were there.
Lyon's reverential suite of 28 civil rights photos from the early 1960s are at Etherton Gallery in a four-person show called Documentary Traditions. (Like a host of other galleries around town, Etherton is concentrating on photography this month and next in anticipation of the national conference of the Society for Photographic Education, coming to town March 11.) The riveting Etherton show proves once again just how variable documentary photography can be. Lyon's austere black-and-white work makes a good contrast to Alex Webb's loose, painterly expressionism. Dana Salvo's tidy colored still lifes of Mexican household shrines, glistening in folk art jewel tones, are a fine counterpoint to Donald Woodman's seasonally correct rodeo cowboys. Woodman's rough riders are most un-documentary-like: They're evocatively blurred, and they ride through strangely skewed perspectives, on steers rampaging at a slant.
Lyon's Southern pictures are a classic example of photography in service to history. Chronicling a movement that art critic Robert Hughes aptly called one of "America's greatest internal moral struggle(s)," Lyon created photos whose images approach the mythic. A more perfect marriage of style and subject is hard to imagine. His classical compositions give gravitas to his small pictures and turn them monumental. A sweaty close-up of Martin Luther King Jr.'s face before his eulogy for the four dead girls is a timeless image of grief; John Lewis, now a congressman, kneeling in prayer on a street of protest, appears as the eternal peacemaker.
Mostly Lyon pares down, minimizing surrounding clutter to highlight his human subjects. The faces of his heroes are startlingly transcendent. On a winter day in 1963, he recorded the young idealists who thought the U.S. Constitution ought to allow them a cup of coffee in a cafe. In "Atlanta, Georgia, Winter 1963/4," they're gathered along the counter, their faces luminous, quietly awaiting the police. He doesn't spare us the lineaments of hate, either, in the crewcut white teenagers hurling taunts on the streets (in another "Atlanta, Georgia, Winter 1963/4") or in the cluster of surly low-life cops whose contribution to posterity is giving a finger to the struggle ("Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1963").
These pictures are oddly quiet, too, and still, and for all their universal themes of resistance and oppression, they're forever tied to a time and place. The streetscape of swirling car fins and playful neon ("Hamburgers 10 cents," says one sign) and the skinny dark ties and colored drinking fountains pin the photos down. They're like insect specimens, dead relics of a segregated world now mostly disappeared.
If Lyon goes in for austerity, his opposite number, Alex Webb, is the wild expressionist painter of the medium. A dazzlingly accomplished color photographer, Webb works worldwide for Magnum. (He calls his group of 40 pictures The Waterways of the Amazon and Beyond.) He photographs men unloading televisions onto the Amazon's banks, festival-goers in fish masks in Peru, residents of cardboard boxes on Mexico's streets. And where Lyon prizes classical composition and a straightforward narrative, Webb's pulsating color works have the messy helter-skelter of everyday life.
"Mexico," 1987, is a geometric patchwork of colors and shadows, slanting darks placed against a bright green house facade. Only belatedly do we realize that the circles looking out of the box on the street are the eyes of the box's owner. "Bombardopolis," a Haitian picture from 1986, has an unruly composition too, and you have to look at it for a long time before you assimilate all its parts. A donkey's head juts up in the foreground; a man is about to drive it through the sunlit dusty streets. The tumbledown houses are positioned at extreme diagonals, and a big man's head looms almost invisibly in the right foreground. And like the best of painters, Webb ratchets up his colors, allowing the dirt road to glow deep pink, and a woman's kerchief to pierce the paper in an impossible red.
Even more difficult to untangle is "Palmapampa, Landing Strip, Peru," 1993. A man is carrying a large red-framed mirror, and the picture is mainly in its reflection. Slanting out of the glass is a whole green landscape, with a decrepit brick building nestled in front of mountains. Lurking outside the neat world of the mirror, though, are a couple of ominous onlookers: soldiers with rifles.
The villains in Webb's pictures are trickier to locate than in Lyon's. The political terrain in his Third World subjects is about as complicated as his painterly compositions. An American audience immediately responds to the good and evil in Lyon's work, but we're confused by the messy infusion of soldiers into a Peruvian hillside, and the black coffins carried in Webb's Haiti. But like Lyon, Webb doesn't shy away from aiming his camera directly at the men with guns. And maybe that's the best, and most heroic, of the documentary traditions.
Documentary Traditions, an exhibition of photographs by Danny Lyon, Alex Webb, Dana Salvo and Donald Woodman, continues through Saturday, March 27, at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Nights, the first and third Saturdays of the month. For more information call 624-7370.
The Society for Photographic Education conference, Writing and Photography, meets March 11 through 14 at the Holiday Inn City Center, the Tucson Convention Center and the Center for Creative Photography. Activities include lectures, panel discussions, art demonstrations and portfolio reviews. Registration fees range from $50 to $160, with discounts available for SPE members, retirees, students and high school teachers. For information call 904-255-8131, ext. 3944, or contact www.spenational.org.
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