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Photography by Jean-Michel Reed and Kate S. Parzych at CEPA

Photos by Kate S. Parzych (above) and Jeean-Michel Reed (below right) at CEPA Gallery

The Banal and The Beautiful

Jean-Michel Reed’s photographs feature two polar opposite categories of subject matter that distinguish photography as an artistic medium. (As opposed to, say, painting, or at least modern painting.) The two polar categories are the spectacular and the banal.

Polar opposite, but with this in common, that in neither case is the object beauty in the usual admittedly rather vague and ambiguous sense of that term as applied to artworks, that is, having a quality of visual/tactile sensual attractiveness. In both cases, the object is more information. For the mind more than the soul.

A large and diverse selection of Reed’s photographic work from the past several years is currently on display at the CEPA galleries, together with photographic work by Kate S. Parzych. Very different work in the Parzych case. For one thing, very beautiful, in the sense of having a quality of visual/tactile sensual attractiveness.

The most notably “spectacular” category are Reed’s well-known photos of fires. House fires, building fires, sudden, violent transformations-in-progress of the landscape, the cityscape. These are public spectacles, drawing an audience of gawkers, while firefighters set about the dangerous work of trying to quell the often out-of-control conflagrations. In addition to the still shots of fires, there is a video of a chance spotting of an industrial building fire from a car racing down an expressway nearby. Windshield gawking.

By way of extension of the fires subject matter, there is a wall montage of found photos of fires, but also of various other sudden, violent events, including fatal motor vehicle accidents, that is, of the immediate aftermath accident scene, usually featuring a corpse or several, hastily and incompletely covered, awaiting an ambulance, but really a hearse. Others of apparent suicides—possibly murders, but more likely suicides, with bloody corpse and the death weapon, typically a shotgun—and in some cases what must be police investigators. These can be pretty grim. For example, the woman wedged under the railroad or more likely subway car. Two of the montage photos depict the aftermath of a plane crash, one of what had been a corn field now pincushioned with wooden stakes marking where bodies were found.

The most notably “banal” category photos are from Reed’s series of tawdry and unkempt living spaces apparently abandoned rather in the lurch by tenants who may have decided to fly by night from what had become inequitable rent or mortgage agreements in the wake of the recent and continuing housing financing crisis. These photos may or may not support a thesis about national housing policy and the robber bankers who perpetrated it, but incontestably show us how to see at the ordinary, everyday, real world. (Which we don’t ordinarily see, because of the banality, but also, in this case, because we don’t want to look at what the picture shows, about the victimization of the people, not even shown in the photo, but implied, in the living drama, implied, in the still shot.)

Other banal category photos are some garish architectural interiors and exteriors, strangely blurred, and some photographer-in-vacationland photos, consisting mostly of shots of fellow vacationers, armed with brush and palette, dutifully capturing on canvas rocky shorelines and azure seas and skies.

What the categories of the spectacular and the banal have in common is what they are not about—beauty in the usual sense—but also what they are about—the factual, the real. Which the photographic medium reveals, as its special province. And we see because the camera sees.

Kate Parzych’s works in the current exhibit are primarily cyanotypes. They look like blueprints, that is, with a blue ground, and white, that is, photographic negative, foreground image. And comprise a gamut of imagery, from sketch drawings to purely photographic images, proceeding from simple and identifiable forms—drawings of a Greek temple and some cartoon figures—to more and more complex and abstract images—shimmery reflections on a water surface to physical chaos patterns, a quantity of froth or foam on the water, a swirl of water released from the lock floodgates at Lockport. The series of photos, or most of them, seem to derive from a day trip north to observe and photograph the canal in operation. And for contrast with the still shots, as well as some sound effects, there is a live action video of water being released from a lock. All very lovely, and the deep blue of the cyanotypes communicates an almost tactile watery sense.

The Jean-Michel Reed and Kate S. Parzych displays continue at CEPA through March 17.

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