On location

The Photo Issue: Humans become afterthoughts in three photo-oriented exhibitions
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Photograph by Doug Hall

a&eletters@sfbg.com

PHOTO ISSUE The ghost of Cindy Sherman is everywhere these days. In Untitled Film Stills (1977 onward), Sherman pictured archetypal B-movie versions of herself in emotionally-charged fake film stills. The project remains a salient commentary on self-imagining and imposed, gendered narratives. Yet Sherman's influence can be seen most dramatically these days in photos where people are simply afterthoughts, either insulated or not present at all. Accessible digital video technologies have partially relieved photographs of the burden of "truth." Built and destructed environments are revealed as character actors and elegiac voyeurs.

This is felt even at current exhibitions of work from past decades, pictures that used to mean something quite different. Jerry Burchard's nocturnal shots have long offered commentary on the medium's innate capacity for revelation. But seeing them alongside Debbie Fleming Caffery's knowing depictions of Mexican prostitutes and Linda Foard Roberts's oval photos of almost-knowable materials at Robert Koch Gallery, they abandon a previous film-narrative sensibility (the blurry shots akin to 1970s horror film aesthetics, the celestial long exposures like being at the drive-in) and move closer to the subjects themselves: the game-like design of a park in Morocco, the cleavage of skeletal trees. What was caricatured emotionality for Sherman is silent theatricality for Burchard, the black-box-theatre intimacy of it all. His Casablanca, Morocco (1973-76) doesn't demand that you want to know what it's portraying. I initially saw the white streak as a mattress, something angelic and domestic that would be at home in a Tony Kushner play, but I was ultimately content with the mystery.

Nearby at Rena Bransten Gallery, photographs in the group show "Decline and Fall" move the empty stage further into ghostliness. Doug Hall's Helena, Wife of Constantine, Museo Capitalino, Rome (1996/97) reads like Thomas Struth having an exorcism. Light speaks first, statues second. Light holds court. The oval molding appears flattened, invoking airport baggage carts. Next to Hall's in-transit humans, Candida Höfer's 2004 depiction of frozen palatial elegance and Martin Klimas' 2003 picture of shattering ceramics against a white background appear increasingly compassionate.

For the San Francisco Arts Commission and PhotoAlliance's "10 x 10 x 10" at City Hall, 10 local curators invited 10 photographers to submit 10 works each. Stacen Berg chose John Harding for his careful compositions of people who are "entirely distanced from their public environment." In one hallway, Harding's analog captures of San Francisco street scenes face off with the late Ken Botto's urban shots, constructed from miniatures and morphs. It's as if the buildings and slabs, not the people, are shooting the movies of our lives. Heather Snider chose Solstice Fires, Lucy Goodhart's "reverential but not sentimental" pictures of last summer's Big Sur fires. In dialogue with Jesse Schlesinger's varied but participatory outdoor exposures, picked by Joyce Grimm, and Chris McCaw's stunning paper negatives, chosen by Linda Connor, Goodhart's photographs speak to a world that is listening even when no one is there. *

10 X 10 X 10

Through Sept. 18

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery at City Hall

1 Dr. Carlton B.

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