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Max Collins Presses On

Mac Collins's portrait of Buffalo News arts critic Colin Dabkowski.

Portrait exhibition at Main (St)udios

There are occasions in the career of every artist when everything fortuitously comes together and a project that you envision is realized and exceeds your own and your audience’s expectations. That is what just happened for the emerging young muralist and photographer Max Collins, and the exceptional results—his best work yet in my opinion—are on view at Main (St)udios in a compact exhibition of new work that focuses on the Buffalo News and is entitled Press: In the Flesh.

Collins has quickly made a name for himself since returning to Buffalo in 2011 through his many large-scale wheat-pasted public murals throughout the region (as far afield as Springville) and periodic exhibitions of his portrait photography. This new series provided him with an opportunity to thoughtfully combine these two practices and further explore the relationship between image and text, elements that have been integral to his work so far.

The subject of the series is also personally significant to Collins since he is an experienced photojournalist, having worked for four years as a staff photographer and managing photo editor at the Michigan Daily while completing his BFA at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During that period, several of his photos were published in the New York Times. More importantly, observing and participating in many aspects of producing and publishing a daily newspaper deepened his respect and admiration for the profession and led to the concept for this present show.

The Buffalo News embraced the idea and provided support and access to its staff and facilities, most significantly, the state-of-the art-digital printers of their commercial printing division, TBN Direct. Several months of planning led to an intensive three-week period during which Collins photographed 65 News employees including editors, writers, pressmen, and support staff—several in their workplace—and toured the facilities capturing images from the newsroom to the presses. The more than 1,500 images he compiled gave him the raw material he needed to highlight the human capital behind the newspaper, with a pointed focus on the individuals who are much more recognized through their bylines or names in the masthead than they are by their faces. Collins states that he wanted to draw attention to “all the different characters involved in the 24-hour business of print journalism” and show them in a way that they have not been seen before.

The substrate for each of the artworks is a wood panel collaged with newspaper pages (feature stories, columns, editorials etc.) that Collins carefully selected to coincide with each individual, thus pairing the worker with their work. His intent was to allow the portrait images printed on top of the collages to physically and metaphorically meld with each other. The results are extremely effective—the translucency of the superimposed photographs gives the illusion that the portrait images occupy a space that exists within the text, typography and images on the newsprint.

The exhibition is astutely edited and consists of nine portraits, three larger images of other subjects and several historic artifacts that provide a unique context for the artworks. A panoramic view of the newsroom alongside a large scale close-up of a pressman’s outstretched hands stained with ink serve as ideal bookends for the production of the newspaper—the span between story writing and the printing process. The last, and largest, artwork in the exhibition is an image of a white push-button corded desk phone (well worn and still used throughout the News building) printed over a gridded collage of pages from the News’s internal phone directory. With this work, Collins has created a quasi-portrait of the entire News organization and, with a retro nod to its history, democratically acknowledged each employee for the role they play in the production of the newspaper.

The vintage artifacts on view in the center of the gallery—a curved lead printing plate used on the old rotary presses, a typewriter, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder—serve as a mini-survey of the changing technology of the news industry. The digital printers used to create the photographic images on Collins’s artworks represent current technical capability.

This fine exhibition of expertly conceived and executed artwork that succeeds on many levels and represents a “personal breakthrough” for the artist is on view through August 15. To see Collins in action, head down to Larkin Square on August 14, 5-8pm, when he continues work with fellow artist Christopher Kameck on an outdoor wheat-pasted photo mural that combines historic imagery of the Larkin District with neighborhood portraits. That project is part of the popular weekly “Live at Larkin” festivities.

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