Fugitive Moments

The portrait is an attempt to freeze time. Whether painting or photograph, its purpose is to hold the subject safe, to fix that moment when the person looks just so, before the passing of time and the cares of living take their toll. Though he's been gone 50 years, Great-Granddad stills looks down with hale and hearty benevolence over his growing brood; at his side, Great-Grandma still possesses the beauty that broke hearts at the county fair. This is the conceit that Oscar Wilde flipped on its head in The Picture of Dorian Gray: That painting bears the ravages of dissipation and degeneration while its subject retains his youth and beauty. And it's the reason I'm reluctant to replace the 20-year-old portrait of me that hangs on my mother's wall: I look better in it.

The paradox of "Portraits," Amy Blakemore's current exhibit at Inman Gallery, is that rather than arresting time, her work seems to partake of its fluidity. One explanation is that most of these photographs are not portraits in the traditional sense of a formal sitting, with the subject posed and highly conscious of the camera's eye. These have the feel of candid shots, even in the few in which the people are looking directly at the camera. That leads us to another explanation, Blakemore's tool of choice: the Diana.

The Diana is a plastic toy camera manufactured in the early '60s by The Great Wall Plastic Factory of Kowloon, Hong Kong. One Web page devoted to the Diana affectionately calls it "the crappiest camera ever manufactured." From all reports, the entire camera, including the lens, is plastic; the body has to be strategically duct-taped because it leaks light horrifically; the optical quality of the lens differs from Diana to Diana, as does the fixed exposure time; the winding mechanism inspires little confidence that the film has actually been advanced; and when it comes to focusing or light settings, prayer probably works as well as anything else. So why would anyone bother?

For an answer to that question, look at these photographs. They're of a world as seen through gossamer. Delicately distorted, like memories or dreams, they soften even more at the edges. In most, the colors are rich, dark and dense; where brightness prevails, the sunniness has the surreal aspect of a fevered hallucination. In Isabel (1994/2002), a gleaming naked body swimming among reeds possesses a Pre-Raphaelite lushness. Steven (1997/2000) closes his eyes and turns away as the sun-washed trees behind him reel vertiginously. And Duncan (2002) stands in a flat landscape that suggests a barrier island, looking down at something, in light so bright it makes you sweat. The sensation of heat is intensified by the shadow his face and sunglasses cast on his white-hot shirtfront.

But the fluid feeling of these photographs isn't due simply to the distortion of the image and the sense of motion that usually conveys. These mementos are memento mori, meditations on fragility and impermanence, on mutability and mortality. They are pregnant with an acute awareness of time and its passage. Debby (2001) is heading for the door, an ornate door that opens from a dim interior onto a sunny, unseen exterior. Bill (1998/2002) leans back, eyes closed, away from the sunlight bathing the foreground, preferring to bask in the shadows, his face a composed and contemplative mask. Maria (2001) passes between us and a stone wall, through which an arched tunnel leads somewhere; a strange red triangle of light suggests an exit sign. Even the less dramatic pictures have a sense of otherness, of distance, as though they were not exactly of this world. The laughing Jill (2002), with her large floppy hat and basket of flowers, could be from another time or country, while the laughing Francesca (1998/2002) next to her seems completely contemporary.

These are nostalgic photographs -- not a sentimental nostalgia for an idealized place or time but a nostalgia for the present, a yearning born of an awareness of the moments that pass with every breath, a longing bred by the unbridgeable distances between people, a comprehension of the loneliness that lies at the heart of intimacy. Doug (2001) gazes at us straightforwardly, yet there's a slightly guarded look in his eyes. In Ellen (2001), little shields of light cover her pupils, keeping us at arm's length. And an older gentleman, Jim (1999), his eyes almost obscured by the glare on his glasses, greets us from a dark corner with an expression of quizzical apprehension.

Of course, trying to freeze time is a fool's errand. Mommy and Daddy's incessant shutterbugging around their toddler is more a documentary of development than an attempt to arrest it. Amy Blakemore's photographs are hauntingly eloquent in their documentation of the fugitive moment, when time passes through the present to become the past. Her richly evocative portraits are less concerned with the status or personality of their subjects -- the traditional interests of portraiture -- than with the weight of time's passage and the unbearable lightness of being.

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John Devine