Capturing humanity on film

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As you reach the top of the steps at the Williams College Museum of Art for its current exhibition, you are greeted with a large, minimally labeled photo of a man that invites you to fill in the blanks. Do you see a person with hopes and dreams, or do you see a low-wage laborer taking a break from the tedious toil that defines his life?

South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa shows his subject dressed in rags, holding his primitive tools in front of him. But there are tensions embedded in the image. As John Stomberg, the exhibition's curator, pointed out, the worker is shown breaking the plane of the horizon behind him, a technique often used in western portraits to signify dominion over the land. It is a pose usually reserved for landowners, not laborers.

The current series of exhibits at WCMA questions what happens when photographic images of people represent and define some social identity about them — a race, a class, a profession. It is a tension as old the genre itself. The question, perhaps impossible to answer, is: How much does the context define the person.

"Beyond the Familiar: Photography and the Construction of Community" explores how this idea has worked — and hasn't worked — through the lens of 10 important photographers from the 19th century through today.

First, the curators present a video exhibit to lay out the questions. Dutch artist Fiona Tan's "Countenance" captures images of hundreds of people from a variety of classes, professions and ages. The piece begins with a simple portrait-sized screen in which faces click past while an unhelpful voiceover drones on. Turn the corner and the images open up dramatically before you. On three large screens the same subjects appear life-sized with the background sounds of the street or workplace where they were filmed.

The screens are looped together at varying rates, so the images appear randomly: teachers beside students, mechanics along with secretaries, pensioners next to children.

Humans have an inherent interest in looking at one another, and these images invite all sorts of contrasts: the farmer whose lambs play at his feet, a little boy desperately trying not to crack up as he poses with his family, a nice German girl wearing a Yankees cap.

Tan describes her work as a dialogue with August Sander, the guiding spirit of the entire exhibit, whose portraits are an important part of the show. Sander was a German photographer whose master work through the first few decades of the last century, "People of the Twentieth Century," tried to classify humanity in an almost taxonomic fashion through photography. At the heart of his approach was a certainty that such a project was even possible, the kind of certainty that would appear in a perverted form with the Nazis, who hated Sander's work for including subjects beyond just the Aryan race.

Other photographers in the WCMA show further examine this question of whether photography can classify people.

Among them is Edward Curtis, whose posed, sepia portraits and set-pieces of Native Americans were so common that many will recognize them somehow. Curtis began his effort in 1907, after the Wild West was no longer so wild, in an effort to reclaim and shape what was fast becoming history. His copious volumes of images are all staged and editorially shaped, and as ethnography gave way to the science of anthropology with its sense of ethics, his work fell badly out of favor.

Only in recent decades, when the images could be taken out of context and reassessed, was any value found in them, for their details, and for what they say about ways of looking.

"(Curtis) had them dress up," Stomberg said. "But at least you can see her gown."

Moving into the postwar period, the photographers take a decided turn away from the objective search for truth and toward a more personal, impressionistic, and poetic attempt to describe people and society.

These photographers include Robert Frank, whose images of 1950s America were roundly hated for matter-of-factly presenting too many warts — segregated lunch counters and buses, for example. But he did not pretend to pin his subjects down with scientific certainty.

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As he described his work: "When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the same way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice."

Other photographers include David Goldblatt, a South African whose work subtly explores the contradictions and hypocrisy of the apartheid state, and Barbara Norfleet, whose collection "All the Right People" took a close look at the Northeastern WASP ruling class.

Tina Barney used her access as a member of the upper class to present them in what seems a trusting and careful manner. Her portraits are carefully composed, and as Stomberg said, "take on a quality of history paintings. In this way their stories take on historic proportions and seem to be of major consequence even when they are doing simple things."

But all the humanity you see in the faces of her portraits of two students, or a young lady with her poised awkwardness, can't escape the fact that the students are wearing tails and the girl is standing in a much nicer living room than mine. No more than the slum-dwellers in Mthethwa's images on the adjacent wall can leave behind their modest and simply dignified living spaces.

Most of us today are so used to maneuvering through our lush visual culture that we take images for granted. In an age of digitized images constantly zapping around the web, subject to Photoshop and all manner of manipulation, we hardly notice the fault lines we glide over. But when it comes to the recorded, mediated image, there is always more than meets the eye.

If you go ...

What: Opening reception

When: Today, 5 to 7 p.m.

Where: Williams College Museum of Art.

What: Artist's Talk: Tina Barney

When: Today, 7 p.m.

Where: Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, Williams College.

What: Gallery Talk: "Questioning Reality: The Archives of Fiona Tan and August Sander"

When: Oct. 30, 4 p.m.

Where: WCMA.


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