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States of America at Nottingham Contemporary — ‘genesis of a fractured nation’

States of America at Nottingham Contemporary — ‘genesis of a fractured nation’

October 09
22:01 2017

It is inevitable that artistic surveys meditating on modern America will be viewed through the prism of Donald Trump’s divided nation. States of America: Photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era at Nottingham Contemporary, an exhibition of 250 works by 17 photographers, is no exception. Dive into this panoply of Americana, running like a rollercoaster from 1960s to early 1990s, and the genesis of Trump’s fractured state becomes all too apparent.

The exhibition, drawn mainly from the holdings of the Wilson Centre for Photography in London, is one of the largest overviews of US photography in Britain in recent years. Navigating these varied strands of documentary image-making could be daunting, but the show is divided into digestible sections, or “lines of enquiry”.

The display feels fluid across the four galleries. The first room centres on “Subject or Object”, dissecting the dynamic between the photographer and the subject. There are no image captions — but as a result, I found myself honing in on the imagery with more enthusiasm and care.

Mark Cohen’s 1970s images, shot on a wide-angle lens, are a case in point. It takes a while to decipher the cropped figures, oblique heads and hairstyles that crowd his images of working-class residents in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

“Fur Hat and Coat, Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, PA” (1974) and “Boy and Bag” (1974) are among Cohen’s outstanding, confrontational works. Unravelling the visual clues in the pictures is satisfying — is that really two guys holding their faces in their hands, as the caption states, or a Magritte-style surrealist set-up? The ways a photographer configures a sitter come to the fore; Cohen’s approach is intrusive but striking.

‘A Man in a Bowler Hat’ (1976) by Dawoud Bey

Hanging opposite Cohen’s works are Mary Ellen Mark’s unstintingly desolate portraits of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, a 13-year old prostitute photographed in downtown Seattle in 1980s. Mark has continued to document Tiny’s progress, charting a lifetime of addiction and poverty, as America passes from the 20th to 21st century leaving casualties in its wake.

Other juxtapositions are just as masterful. Bill Owens and Jim Goldberg present the idea of alternative futures in a section focusing on “Interiors and Private Spaces”. Owens spent every weekend in 1972 photographing the residents of Livermore, a newly built suburb in the San Francisco Bay area, for his celebrated “Suburbia” series. These aspirational inner-city residents, keen to make better lives in their homogeneous Truman Show settings, look content. But these melancholic portraits, and accompanying statements from the sitters, say much about their unfulfilled longings.

Goldberg presents quasi-anthropological studies of US citizens from across the socio-economic spectrum in his “Rich and Poor” series from 1979. Lengthy unflinching comments from the sitters — an impoverished 29-year-old woman living alone in San Francisco describes her acute depression, for instance — build a fascinating contextual framework. Goldberg is more than an observer; he is bearing witness to his country’s woes and vicissitudes.

But Owens and Goldberg are not the only revelation. Bruce Davidson’s 1980s photographs of the New York subway — hellish, intoxicating — puncture the show. And Dawoud Bey and Ming Smith, relative unknowns for UK audiences, weave a rich elegiac tapestry of life in Harlem, New York.

Bey’s single-lens reflex camera moves thoughtfully among the borough’s residents. He wants to explore a “more deliberate way of making pictures”, making dignified depictions of people clinging to the rock of life.

‘Love Barber Shop Jazz (from the August Wilson Series) Pittsburgh PA’ (1993) by

Grainy shadows and shades in works such as “Love Barber Shop Jazz (from the August Wilson series), Pittsburgh, PA” (1993) are a trademark of Ming Smith’s oeuvre, showing documentary photography as an evolving art form. The selection of her 1970s and 1990s works are a gripping commentary on alienation.

Alongside Smith’s works hang Joseph Szabo’s shots of teenagers smoking and smooching. The Long Island-based high-school teacher documented the antics of his students from 1970s to 1980s, and the images show a trusting relationship between a photographer and subjects.

Szabo’s image of a baby-faced girl on Jones Beach, New York (“Priscilla”, 1969) is especially memorable. The girl, no older than 10 or 11, is smoking, and looks old before her time: a hardened soul prepared perhaps for the storms ahead.

To November 26,

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