The World Made Visible

The great photographer Diane Arbus once claimed that if she didn't take her pictures, no one would ever see the things she photographed. She was talking, in part at least, about the circus hermaphrodites, Sunday nudists, Russian dwarfs and shy transvestites on whom she trained her rather anthropological lens in the '60s and '70s. Yet the same could be said for a photographer who aims her camera at things that surround us every day, particularly if that photographer is Amy Blakemore. Blakemore's subjects are unremarkable enough, most of them: children, flowers, churches, Tulsa. But where we might see nothing worth clicking a shutter at, Blakemore sees vulnerability and longing, fragility and delicate cruelty. In Blakemore's world, what appear to be ripe windfall apples on a sun-dappled lawn turn out to be, as Tennessee Williams characters do once you've discovered their secrets, rotten, yet beautiful.

Blakemore, an Oklahoma native, moved to Houston in the mid-'80s to do a Museum of Fine Arts Core Fellowship. Since then her work has been ubiquitous but low-profile, included in countless group shows and presented during FotoFest among legions of other photographs, its cumulative breadth and momentum lost in the shuffle. Blakemore's not given to self-promotion, so to boost her profile Inman Gallery has put together a ten-year survey complete with a color catalog that's a must-have for any connoisseur of Houston art. The exhibit turns out to have been a very smart move. Although many of the images in the gallery were already familiar to me, Blakemore's work as a whole seemed an exciting discovery, as if I had just dug my first Joni Mitchell album out of my mother's record collection, or more apropos, as if I found out Anne Sexton was living next door.

Blakemore is my favorite sort of photographer -- the kind that wanders around with a camera and an eye ready to be caught. Over the years, she has teased a deep, Southern melancholia out of several core subjects: children playing, portraits of friends, landscapes, roadside Americana and her visits to religious pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes. (Because of the gallery's limited space, the show leaves as many great pictures off the walls as on; I recommend a look at the binder of outtakes, where small prints of many favorites are tucked away.) Shot with a Diana, a plastic-lensed hobby camera made in the '50s and '60s, these square photographs are quiet and technically humble, yet replete with classic notions of rhythm, repetition and metaphor. Although her style is distinctive, Blakemore doesn't offer a trendy look; unlike some of today's hot art photographers, her work wouldn't do nicely in Vogue.

Nor will it be appearing in Life magazine anytime soon. Blakemore doesn't have the encyclopedic documentary urge of a Robert Frank or Walker Evans. Instead, like Andre Kertesz, she's more about the moment -- and she's good at catching it. In one photo, a girl playing a carnival game tosses a ball at one hole just as an adult hand indicates the other. In one of her best works, "Plaza," Blakemore isolates human frailty like a specimen in a bleak petri dish: A nurse pushes a woman in a wheelchair across a deserted, tar-speckled square, while a solitary statue raises its arm in rebuke. Blakemore makes the familiar seem strange (there must be a good German word for that), but not historical or exotic. Even when she's in Medjugorje or Fatima, she doesn't trade on her locale -- in fact, her titles ("Flag," "Plaza") remain stubbornly generic.

Blakemore won't let her images be tied to someplace or sometime else; she wants us to wrap them in our own contexts and take them home, as if they were memory fragments that belong to us. Blakemore's primitive Diana cameras (she uses several) tend to "vignette" images, a technical term for when photos recede into darkness around the edges. Vignetting may sound sweetly nostalgic, but Blakemore doesn't sentimentalize sentiment. To remember, in her world, is to feel deeply. I always liked the fact that "vague" in French means "wave," and Blakemore works the Diana's inherent vagueness into something with the indiscriminate force of a wave, one that washes away detail to leave a dramatic essence and arc. Blurred foregrounds and backgrounds give a lurchy sense of motion to Blakemore's landscapes, like those movie scenes where the camera-as-eyes-of-psycho-killer plunges through woods or fields. In Swing, one child swoops crookedly on a single-rope swing, while the legs of another hang into the frame like the legs of a lynched man. You can't make out the details of his shoes or clothes; thus the image becomes timeless, but not impersonal.

One of the reasons Blakemore's images seem so low-key in group shows -- particularly the photos with no people -- is their almost unassertive, conciliatory simplicity. They're not deceptive, yet they catch me unawares. She takes pictures of the sky, and pictures of the sea, and pictures of winter yards with barren trees or heavy metal cellar doors. They are diligently ordinary, even flat, and she doesn't try to convince us otherwise. But somehow these tannic suburban scenes pull at my heart the way dry wine sucks at the roof of one's mouth, reconnecting me to something I've felt before. After all, what are we often looking at in moments of solitary emotion? Nothing in particular. Maybe the sky.

Diane Arbus talked about one of the differences between cinema and photography. At a film, she pointed out, everyone is perfectly willing to watch two people in bed and ignore the fact that there were 30 other people in the room while it was happening. With photography, on the other hand, one never forgets the presence of the photographer. Blakemore's presence is that of a practiced watcher and waiter, but not a voyeur. Rather, she seems to identify so completely with her subjects that one can never be certain whether she found them or they her. Without lapsing into satire, she allows questions and doubts to enter the frame, as in her soft-focus portrait of Steph, whose snapshot grin is edged with a gentle uncertainty. Blakemore's vivid, careening shots of flowers are unique because of their perspective: They appear to have been taken by a flower with a camera.

The question of perspective becomes particularly germane in Blakemore's photographs of children and old people. She shoots them with a combination of total empathy and acute knowingness, capturing both their innocence and that which threatens it. A frowning boy is framed against the black suits of the men who huddle behind him, facing away from the camera, creating a gulf of darkness that separates childhood from the graver concerns of adulthood. An ecstatic child is about to dash through a gap in a hedge, into what one imagines might be a complicated, confusing maze.

I remarked before that Blakemore's style isn't glamorous, but that's not to say her aesthetic isn't captivatingly edgy. Without seeming dependent on a gimmick, she avails herself of the Diana camera's sober, somewhat worshipful tone. She finds loneliness in a patriotic wall decoration, a bizarre glow of triumph in a banal brick church. Looking at her photographs leaves me with a wondrous sense of validation -- she transforms the incidental things we all see into something more meaningful: a story, a vignette, a piece of the visual tissue of which our minds are made. The germ of the work is Blakemore's aesthetic absorption in the world around her. What we're left with, quietly and generously, is her communion with it.

"Ten Years: Amy Blakemore" is on view through June 26 at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull, (713)529-9676.

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