Playing to Type

At the turn of the century, German photographer August Sander began work on a project ambitiously titled "Man of the Twentieth Century." His 400-plus subjects were divided into categories such as "young socialists," "society women" or "persecuted Jews." These categories were not preplanned, but developed as Sander's project proceeded, exploring (some say instigating) the idea that an archive can not only collect knowledge but, through comparison, actually create it. In other words, when we have five portraits of farmers' wives, we know more about farmers wives as a group than we would if we had only one. We know them no longer as simple individuals, but as types.

Sander's motives lay somewhere between science (or sociology) and nostalgia (or history). He and others like him, such as American photographer Edward S. Curtis, came to be known as typologists. But though they shared a common desire -- to preserve that which was endangered or disappearing -- they didn't necessarily share a common approach. While Curtis, who asked Native Americans to don headdresses and re-enact battles for his archive of photos, romanticized his subjects for their "bravery" and "splendor," Sander, who was still working on his project when he died in 1946, photographed his subjects straight on, without costume, in their day-to-day environment.

Differences in attitude toward typology can also be found among those who followed Sander and Curtis, including the nine artists in "When Two or More: New Typologies," the current show at the Houston Center for Photography. The linchpin of the exhibit is the work of the German team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the heirs of Sander and the godparents of contemporary typological photography. The Bechers' pictures document 19th-century, mostly industrial structures such as water towers and lime kilns. At HCP, their nine photographs of German frame houses, each clearly the same style but varied in beam pattern and construction quality, unblinkingly record an obsolete, traditional "type." By placing their subjects dead center, they avoid the normal photographic concern of composition, focusing attention instead on the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic variations of the subjects themselves. In this seemingly unsentimental project, we learn what makes a frame house a frame house, and where deviations are permitted. Though the Bechers, who began their collaboration in 1959, imitate Sander's comparatively innocent approach, they don't continue his focus on people. For them, detailing human types may have been too loaded, too Hitlerian, a concept. Instead, the Bechers photographed a Germany in which no evidence of war, not even its perpetrators, was to be seen.

HCP's exhibit seeks to expand on a 1991 traveling exhibit called "Typologies," though the Bechers are the only artists the two shows have in common. A few of the artists in the HCP show use methods similar to those of the German photographers, but with less success. Chicago artist Sa Schloff takes studio photographs of people's naked backs, reminiscent of the now-infamous "posture photos" many colleges subjected their freshmen to in the 1950s. Gen Aihara of Purchase, New York, photographs people's hands, identifying the subjects of his high-quality solarized prints only by sex and age. Syracuse artist Adrienne Salinger photographs extracted teeth -- decaying, chipped or broken in most cases. Instead of doing the work of formulating a meaningful type or class, these artists choose tired subjects and shed no light on them.

What's more, they present their subjects in an overtly nostalgic fashion -- Schloff's models seem retroactively modest, for example, playing on the viewer's voyeuristic tendencies for no good reason. Aihara's hands are even more cliched, particularly since they're photographed in a sanctimonious manner. His series is punctuated by the obvious, almost cute variation of prosthetic hands. Salinger's teeth, presented a bit preciously in amber frames, are fractionally more interesting, but they suffer the same malaise as the hands -- that is, they pretend that we glean meaningful information about the owners of these body parts by scrutinizing them. Perhaps we do, but the question remains: So what?

Another installation by Schloff, Major Figures, is insulting in its lack of craft. Mug shots from the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia are reproduced in tiny, barely legible prints that have been carelessly cut out. The irregularity of a project that should be crisp is off-putting, and the project's relation to typology is a stretch. Another forced entry is that of Jim Reisch, a Dallas photographer whose pictures of blue-collar workers are problematic in the same way Curtis's Indians are, if to a lesser degree. Taken, one presumes from Reisch's bio, for publication in annual reports, his photos are suffused with the glow of corporate, strobe-lit happiness. Reisch's accompanying statement, "All work is honorable and even borders on the sacred," begs the question: Oh yeah? Is that what the workers told you?

On the other hand, Stacy Greene's photographs of women's used lipsticks are a formal and typological triumph. Photographed "product-style" (oversize and glossy) and tiled together to form a large mural, each lipstick is identified only by the name of its owner. They mock the women's magazine "personality charts" that explain if your lipstick has a concave top, you're the probing, adventurous type. "Roberta"'s lipstick leans like the Tower of Pisa; "Wendy"'s is sculpted into a bizarre eggplant-hued twist; "India"'s , eroded by the force of nature that is a woman's lips, forms a crested butte. Like the Bechers' German frame house series, this work's formal properties are immensely satisfying -- in this case, because it's so slick and sickeningly intimate. What's more, the work shows us something about our world: That even a mass-produced beauty "necessity" such as lipstick doesn't produce rampant similarity. Rather, a lipstick is an object inevitably engraved with the singular mark of its owner.

In rounding out the show with works by photographers Karl Baden of Boston and Young Kim of San Francisco, curator Jean Caslin has stretched the definition of typology to include a prolonged examination of a single subject over time -- namely, the photographers themselves. By placing similar subjects side by side, typologists not only identify shared characteristics but make differences easier to identify. By photographing themselves repeatedly, Baden and Kim magnify minute changes to immense proportions. Furthermore, in their strict endurance they mock the art-world prejudice that a photographer (read: charlatan) must prove himself or herself as much by quantity as quality -- the larger your oeuvre, the better. In these projects, the distinctions between "types" shift from arbitrary to organic -- one living thing is always the same, yet infinitely different. Both artists photograph themselves daily -- Baden since 1987 and Kim since 1989 -- in an attempt to preserve not a vanishing type but ephemeral variations. They are trying to record the passage of time.

Yet for all the similarities between these two projects, there are fundamental differences. Kim photographs herself in varying costumes, poses and locations, sometimes with props, sometimes with eyeglasses or makeup. Occasionally, she's absent from the image or moving through it, ghostlike. Occasionally, she smiles or looks alarmed. Hers is a record of mood and style, an interaction with the camera. Because of space limitations, her work is presented at HCP in the form of an 85-minute videotape of the still photographs. The viewer actually witnesses the progression of time, beginning with romantic black-and-white photos and segueing into color Polaroids.

While a subdued vanity seems to trail Kim, making her project less a typology than a banal memoir, Baden has stripped himself of all accouterments, style included. His daily photo ritual is more rigorous, more scientifically controlled: He uses the same film, lighting and neck-up composition. Staring at the camera with a near-forlorn expression, Baden has -- and not without humor -- made himself a sort of mute Rodney Dangerfield. Of course, no two of his photos are alike (a selection of prints over time is on display, as are all the project's contact sheets), though Baden seems not to have changed at all in the past nine years.

Because typology ideally requires enlightened objectivity and rigorous method, it cannot be used for self-expression in the usual sense. Yet ironically, it is due to Baden's strict method, to his willingness to bare himself to a lens each day sans protection, that we gain empathy with the man. Typology functions through scrutiny, and here is someone who has subjected himself to just that, who at least attempts to view himself in some objective fashion. Flipping through the thick binder of contact sheets, we begin to have some idea of what he's looking for, above and beyond the incremental ravages of age. In the accumulation of images -- for we already know enough to distrust single images; the camera lies; it has angles and viewpoints -- the artist seeks a sustained truth, a filmic habeas corpus, some proof that he has existed in time, and that he perseveres.

"When Two or More: New Typologies" is on view through December 22 at the Houston Center for Photography, 1441 West Alabama, 529-4755.

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Shaila Dewan