There is certainly something to be said about established artists. The "greats" are called so because of the very definition of the word. They are great. Have you ever, though, found yourself staring at the work of a celebrated artist and wondered, "How did they get here?" How did Man Ray become Man Ray? Is artistic merit something you are born with or something you can learn?
This very thought entered my head while viewing the new exhibit at the Houston Center for Photography, Collaborations IX: Aging, which opened this past weekend. Collaborations is an educational program between the HCP and numerous high schools located in the Houston area. The current exhibition marks the program's ninth year. Twenty-two students are chosen to work alongside the HCP team and selected guests in the effort of putting together a student show. This year's theme is "aging," and each of the pieces in the exhibition reflects upon this feeling.
Pondering this question, when do great artists become great artists; I was delighted to find a potential answer -- apparently in high school! Critiquing photography can be difficult. Despite the adage that a "picture is worth a thousand words," when an artist or collection of works is sub par, "said" thousand words can usually be boiled down to just a few: powerful, pretty, boring, etc.
Subpar is not a word I would use to describe the Collaborations IX collection. In fact, I would say it is quite the opposite. The photographs run the gamut in theme, composition and style, but the feeling most of them invoke on aging is quite remarkable. Not one of the photographs on display is like the next, yet as a collection they make a whole.
As you walk into the exhibit, the first image you see is of two young twin boys, in their bathing suits, standing on a log. The artist, Emilee Cooney from Cy Fair High, describes her work as a way to "affect each viewer personally" and "tell a story." While I cannot speak for anyone else, I was so taken aback by this image that I had to revisit it several times. At first, it reminded me of an unsullied Diane Arbus, but upon second glance I changed my mind. One of the boys stares at the camera, assumingly as he was told to do. The other looks down and away with a slightly evil glare. They are Goofus and Gallant captured on film. Is one of the twins favored over the other by their parents and would we be surprised to find out if it was the bad seed? There are a million stories behind this image.
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Wait, just to remind you, Emilee Cooney is in high school.
Another one of the many striking images was "The End," a print by Zenzele Ojore from Clearbrook High School. A young girl dressed in white and wearing a birthday crown stands in the middle of an open field. Bright red balloons are strewn about on the ground. They have lost their helium and made their way to their inevitable demise. The girl stares out into the dark sky. Her party is over. There is nothing left of her birthday but the slightly skewed crown atop her head. How horribly sad it is when the excitement and anticipation of your big day finally come to an end. The celebration is over.
There are many such touching photos in the Collaborations IX collection and did I tell you that teenagers took all of these photos? I apologize for the repetition, but seeing the maturity of this collection and knowing the source is something to take note of. While I am sure I'll never remember the names of these talented kids a year (or probably a day) from now, I will not be surprised if some of them turn out to be very successful photographers. If you want to be inspired by some future greats, go make a visit to HCP. It's free.
Collaborations IX: Aging is at the Houston Center for Photography May 4-June 23. Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays until 9 p.m. Free.