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True Fiction–Photos always lie at PPAC


Even the documentary photos included in Philadelphia Photo Arts Center‘s show True Fiction tell lies of a sort.

Yasser Aggour, Untitled (Double Ram), 2010, Digital C-Print,Edition: 1 of 5–Aggour removes the hunter from internet hunting-trophy snapshots, thereby documenting the other side of the story–and another part of the world.

I started drifting through the 21 photos by a mix of big-name and lesser know photographers looking for the cheat, for the tell-tale fudge of Photoshopping, only to realize that in many of the photos in this show, there was no Photoshopping.

But that doesn’t mean that even the completely documentary photos, the ones that depict what they purport to depict, aren’t in some way misleading.

Curatorial conceits aside, though, this is a terrific mix of photographs from art celebrity photographers and lesser known folks. The show includes big draws Taryn Simon, Gregory Crewdson, Beate Gutschow, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Kelli Connell. But work from the somewhat less known Yasser Aggour to far less known people Chad States, Elaine Stocki and Bradley Peters play equally important roles in challenging assumptions.

onondaga trail
Chad States, Onondaga Trail, 2009 Archival Inkjet Print, Edition: 1 of 5, 20″ x 25″

I’m not going to list whose photos are straightforward documentary and whose are not. It all depends on what “documentary” means. Is documentary with a strong point of view or mission really documentary or is it polemics?

But I will say that you might enjoy knowing that Beate Gutschow’s 100″–plus panoramic industrial landscapes (the box arrived weighing 300 lbs.) were made from 100 or more original photographs. Gutschow is one of the German photographers whose works bear the mark of the Bechers. The conglomerate photos  don’t give a you-are-there kind of ingress, but they impress, depress and overwhelm in their relentless detail.

2 guys
Chad States, Two Men on Path, 2009 Archival Inkjet Print Edition: 1 of 5

I’ve been mulling over Chad States’ work for a couple of years. The Wilmington resident is a conceptual artist in a documentarian’s clothing, and the wolves and sheep in his photos are chat-room-anonymous gay men and their assignation spots. The flat, ordinariness of the places and details in this work demystifies an invisible subculture hiding in plain sight.

A large number of photos in this show pretend to capture critical moments that are really staged. Crewdson’s trailer trash fatty is a stereotyped fantasy just waiting for our culture to reject it as embarrassing and insulting in the next wave of PC revisionism.

man on Ledge
Bradley Peters, Untitled (Man on Ledge with Baby), 2009, Pigmented Inkjet Prints Edition: 4 of 10 24″ x 30″; the photo captures an unintended moment during a staged photo shoot

But how about Bradley Peters’ accidents of staging? Will they hold up as storytelling or do they have the same issues as Crewdson? On the other hand, I don’t hesitate to buy into Frazier’s semi-faux family saga, in which she as photographer (and sometimes subject) is part of the milieu she’s depicting. She presents her family as the anti-Huxtables, the people who refuse to live up to any bourgeois ideals.  Yet the strength of family bonds and a gritty pride come through loud and clear, even while Frazier’s daring you to wonder about what’s really going on in that household.

Huxtables Mom and Me 2008
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Huxtables, Mom and Me, 2008, Silver gelatin print

The show allows the viewer, by believing or doubting, to participate in an activity that unveils levels of cultural assumptions and values, layers of lies or fictions. It’s an interesting show. And it’s an ambitious show from this small gallery that is fearless in reaching for the stars.

The show is up through November 27, 2010.