The show begins with Rantoul's 1980 "Boston Infrared" series — vertigo-inducing portraits of local skyscrapers. The camera feels tipped up and off balance as it records with impressive Modernist formalist rigor the repeating patterns of windows and moldings of towers against soft clouds above.
Subsequent photos come out of the New Topographics style. This is often affiliated with straight-on, deadpan, "objective" photos of sprawling, cookie-cutter housing developments in the American West — yet it also includes Nicholas Nixon and Frank Gohlke in Boston and Providence's Joe Deal, who wrote the foreword to Rantoul's first monograph in 2006. Rantoul records train tracks running along the bottom of a rocky Utah cliff, a road barrier along a lush residential California neighborhood, a cemetery amid vast, middle-of-nowhere wheat fields in Washington. These precise, controlled, seemingly disinterested shots of (often) dreary places can feel arid, yet they can also seem as fresh as a crisp starched sheet.
Rantoul favors vistas devoid of people, and a couple of series from the mid 2000s look at actual ghost towns — there's Old Trail Town, a collection of relocated 19th-century Old West buildings in Cody, Wyoming, and the abandoned WW1-era military housing on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor. On the island, he shoots the brick houses, with their empty windows, mainly head on. But I'm taken by a photograph that gazes upward at a brick ruin through a stand of shimmering trees. There's a haunted romance to its mood of absence and abandonment.
Proof Gallery rounds up a compellingly idiosyncratic snapshot of local talent in its fourth annual "Boston Does Boston" show. Gallery director Kara Braciale invited three artists — Suara Welitoff of Cambridge, Rebecca Roberts of Newton, and Kurt Ralske of New York (he teaches at RISD) — to exhibit. Each was also asked to pick a local artist to join the show; they chose, respectively, Jonathan Calm, Julia Featheringill, and Meg Rotzel.
Welitoff makes brief looped videos, often of found, grainy footage that's been slowed down, with the color contrast pumped up. Most are not narratives, but at their best they can suggest curiously mesmerizing amplified dream moments: two hummingbirds seeming to kiss, police running off protesters, a couple chatting. Here she presents Girl with a Book, a brief, black-and-white, slo-mo shot of a seated woman reading. The woman runs her finger back and forth across the page, as if following along with the words, or maybe reading Braille. As usual, Welitoff is looking to pinpoint the alluring edge between ordinary and mysterious, but in the end this image feels too ordinary, so the spell doesn't hold.
Roberts's Now and Then, with its catchy, lyrical pattern of alternating, wiggly curved lines stitched together from blue, green, brown, and orange fabrics, calls to mind hard-edged mid-century Los Angeles abstraction. Ralske offers The Enraged Algorithm, a video of flickering North African faces (excerpts for the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers run through facial-recognition software) to which he adds some tacked-up papers: a Google map of venues screening the movie; piles of rocks, with a green square around one that might be picking out its resemblance to a face; a blurry image that resembles a mass of digitally stretched hands; and a sheet of words with Arabic origins with the "al" or "el" cut off ("chemy, cohol, gebra, gorithm"). His point is vague — perhaps he's hinting at something about profiling people and Middle Eastern strains in our own culture.