Houston Gets Its Closeup in New Photography Show

Houston celebrates its 175th anniversary by putting a spotlight on the people who make it tick.
Houston celebrates its 175th anniversary by putting a spotlight on the people who make it tick.
Photo by Meredith Deliso

The people of this young city have long served as game muses for its talented photographers. In the 1970s, there were Gay Block's arresting photographs of the "Jews of Houston." In the 1980s, Earlie Hudnall captured life in the Fourth Ward, while Phyllis Hand immortalized Houston society for the pages of the Post and the Chronicle. And, not all that long ago, Shelley Calton turned her lens on the city's nascent roller derby scene, her black-and-white portraits well suiting her tough-as-nails models.

These artists and more have lent their beloved subjects to "People: Contemporary Photographers Looking at Houston," running now at One and Two Allen Center as part of a series of exhibitions celebrating Houston's 175th anniversary. Two of Houston's contemporary art mavens -- the Houston Center for Photography and FotoFest -- joined forces for the show to bring together photographers whose works best represent the diverse fabric that makes up the sprawling city.

"The people of Houston is such a huge concept," said Bevin Bering Dubrowski, executive director of the Houston Center for Photography. "To break it down, we selected photographers with ties to Houston and who have bodies of work about Houston."

"Courtney Jones, Portrait #1 (Modern Dancer)"
"Courtney Jones, Portrait #1 (Modern Dancer)"
Photo by Lynn Lane

All told, there are 15 artists with 120 pieces among them spread out over two floors. It's a lot to take in, with some nice Houston moments provided by the likes of Jim Oliver and his scenes from the Houston marathon and Art Car Parade, but we reacted most, good or bad, to the portraiture. Given the control the photographer has with the form, these made for the sharpest, most engaging shots, baring all the quirk, humor, power and intensity of its subjects.

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When talking about the Houston portraiture, you'd be remiss not to include the late Suzy Paul, whose work is included here and largely focuses on people associated with the arts, such as a serious portrait of The Art Guys from 1998. They're sad, soul-baring works that have little care for the anesthetized polish of most studio portraiture.

In "Under the Radar," Frank White trades in his usual subject -- forklifts -- for Houstonians who are prominent in their fields but most likely unfamiliar with the limelight (Houston Symphony concertmaster Frank Huang and animator Gerard Baldwin are two examples). Posing, a little too obviously, with the tools of their trade (Huang a violin, Baldwin a pencil), they're given giant, magazine-quality photographs that give them the attention they deserve, with accompanying text to better tell their stories.

Lynn Lane's series, "Portrait Project," is almost the antidote to White's -- his subjects, which include makeup artist Sara Eudy and dancer Courtney Jones, are captured in their most comfortable state, no poses or big gestures here. Just warm, natural, black-and-white portraits that attempt to bring out their real essence.

During Thursday's opening reception, some of White's and Lane's subjects could be seen walking through the exhibition, sheepishly showing their friends their portrait while admiring others. Jennifer Ward, exhibitions coordinator for FotoFest, hopes to get some of these "People" together for "TED Talks"-style events before the exhibition closes in December.

"With this type of show, it's appropriate," said Ward. "You can get to have these really fascinating people share their story."

"People: Contemporary Photographers Looking at Houston," at One Allen Center (1200 Smith) and Two Allen Center (500 Dallas), runs through December 5. For information visit www.houston175.org.

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