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America the Dysfunctional

It's not cheery, but this is one of the best FotoFest shows so far.

Just in case you hadn't noticed, it's time again for FotoFest, that epic, biennial photography extravaganza. The 2010 version includes nine official FotoFest

venues and more than 100 participating spaces. This thirteenth edition of the biennial has proven lucky for FotoFest — there is some really interesting stuff out there. Unlike previous FotoFest themes such as "Water" (don't get me started), this year's theme, "Contemporary U.S. Photography," is open enough to include a wide variety of work. Some of the most intriguing images so far are at FotoFest's Vine Street headquarters in "Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs," curated by Aaron Schuman.

A riveting, dystopian sensibility dominates much of the work in the exhibition. These images aren't about America the Beautiful — they're about America the Dysfunctional. Some of the photographs in the show offer a Mad Max sort of vision of decaying American civilization; others take the viewer to scenes of suburban despair; and still others are downright sleazy in their exploitation of the down and out.

Burned Car, Los Angeles: One of Will Steacy's images of chaos, poverty and violence.
Courtesy of the artist and Michael Mazzeo Gallery
Burned Car, Los Angeles: One of Will Steacy's images of chaos, poverty and violence.

Will Steacy's series Down These Mean Streets includes images of Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Queens. The artist shot the photos while trekking from each city's airport to its main business district. They have an anarchic feel to them as they capture graffiti-covered inner-city liquor stores and lotto ads, XXX adult theater marquees, and makeshift memorials to victims of violence. Save for one portrait of a homeless man, the images are unpeopled, offering silent testimony to chaos, poverty and violence.

In Steacy's Burned Car, Los Angeles (2009), the charred black shell of a sedan rests under an overpass. Barely visible in the haze of the mercury vapor lamps from nearby warehouses is the tent someone has pitched behind the car. In the photo 291, Detroit (2009), the subject, an abandoned row house, seems haunted. The crumbling brick facade and boarded-up windows are the empty husk of what was once a home filled with a family. The building feels like a tomb. In Bench, Queens (2008), the massive wood planks of a bus stop bench have been sawed off in the middle. The rationale behind the act is a mystery (firewood?), and the remains of the bench are a mute testament to brutish, pointless destruction.

Todd Hido's late-1990s images of empty California homes from the last big round of foreclosures offer a quieter and more intimate take on loss and the destruction of lives. The absence of the people whose hopes, dreams and aspirations went into these homes is as palpable as the indentations their furniture left on the carpeting. The empty interiors and the residue from the former occupants — a stained mattress, a gaudy lamp, a clown light-switch plate — are incredibly poignant.

Confronting the harsh and ugly realities of America today can be rich artistic fodder, but I disliked Craig Mammano's work intensely. From what I can gather, Mammano is a New Jersey-born photographer and sometime Seattle resident who, in a carpetbagger-like gambit, moved to post-­Katrina New Orleans and began to photograph the 7th Ward. His connection to the area and reason for relocating seem to be sheer voyeurism. This uneven work veers from documentary street shots to pictures of naked, poor, mainly black women, images that seem to me to be devoid of empathy, compassion or respect, captured as if the artist were recording sideshow freaks. (Diane Arbus's photographs of actual circus freaks are far more self-possessed.) The catalog states that the pictures are "raw" and "genuinely uncover his subject's individuality." Bullshit.

Most of these images were not shot in public but taken indoors, seemingly in the homes of the subjects. Just because you can convince a toothless middle-aged woman with the sagging breasts and belly of multiple pregnancies to assume a pinup pose for your camera doesn't mean you should shoot that image. In another photo, a woman lifts up her shirt and pulls down her pants for the camera. One gets the impression that the women of the 7th Ward simply take off their clothes for strangers with a camera as a matter of course. There had to be some dialogue between the photographer and his subjects, and I would like to know exactly what Mammano said. This work cannot be defended as documentary; this is manipulative and ­exploitive photography by a gawking outsider.

Richard Mosse is by far the standout of the show. Rather than focusing on America, he focuses on Iraq and the chaos that is the product of American action. His photographs are enormous and highly seductive — they are gorgeously shot, in the way a less topical photographer would capture some scenic swath of natural splendor. The images lure you in even as it dawns on you what they depict. Stark desert landscapes are interrupted and dominated by the shells of blown-up cars, the roofs ripped open from within, the bodies pierced by shrapnel and gunfire. The images are titled after their subjects: a Mitsubishi Space Wagon (2009) found in Mosul, a Plymouth Grand Voyager (2009) from the Sunni Triangle. At some point, you register that these violently transformed vehicles are soccer mom cars.

In other images, the artificial blue tile of the rubble-filled pool of Uday Hussein's hilltop palace is dramatically contrasted with the dry, barren, brown landscape. Uday was the son of Saddam notorious for kidnapping and raping women, among other things. The weapon-toting soldiers in camouflage, flak jackets and helmets lounging beside the pool ratchet up the surreal factor. Mosse is amazing. He manages to bring us images of apocalyptic grandeur that are both horrifying and stunningly beautiful.

Aside from Mammano's work, overall "Whatever Was Splendid" is one of the best FotoFest shows so far. If you are looking for strong, blunt photography, this is the place. If you are looking for something cheery and feel-good, go elsewhere.

 
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