His best shots are of statesmen (and stateswomen), actors, and writers — Queen Elizabeth, a young Jackie Kennedy, a scruffy Fidel Castro, a noir Humphrey Bogart, a sinister Peter Lorre, W.H. Auden, H.G. Wells, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev bundled in fur as if he had just walked in from Siberia. I'd suspect the success of these has something to do with the subjects being performers for audiences and cameras or underlings (see Churchill), except I'm not sure how writers fit into my theory. Karsh doesn't seem to know what to do with artists: he succumbs to gimmicky shots of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti entangled with their sculptures. His '50s shots of factory workers resemble stagy Hollywood publicity stills — a lot of that's due to his use of artificial light. Even his "candid" action shots are bathed in studio glamour.
His later photos can feel adrift, rote, tacky, blah. All certainly his fault, but it didn't help that the stars seemed to get smaller too.
If Karsh is too (melo)dramatic for you, consider "William Christenberry Photographs, 1961–2005," 58 shots organized by Aperture, at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Like a just-the-facts-m'am surveyor, the Washington (DC) photographer catalogues tumbledown homes and barns and churches of his native Alabama threatened by creeping kudzu, with nary a person in sight.
The majestic rot, amplified by period nostalgia (love those old cars, shacks, and soda signs), gives a melancholy romanticism to his images, but the soul is in his Southern Gothic subjects, not in his compositions. His photos of buildings and signs come straight out of Walker Evans's 1930s swing through the South — an acknowledged inspiration — but in color. These hues put them at the forefront of a move among ambitious photographers of the '60s and '70s to challenge an art world that still considered color photos uncouth. And Christenberry's exceeding formality chimed nicely with the minimalist bent of the time.
Looking at his photos of recent architecture makes my heart hurt. It's dispiriting to see mini off-the-beaten-path clones of cookie-cutter big-box-store architecture and chain-link fencing sprouting up. But, oh, isn't that exactly America.
"Keeping Time: Cycle and Duration in Contemporary Photography" at Boston University's Photographic Resource Center is a rumination on a fundamental equation of photography: light x time = photo. Photography is usually about an instant in time, but the seven artists here stretch that pictorial moment out to hours or months. The show was organized by PRC curator Leslie K. Brown, who puts together some of the most deep-think shows in the region, but the work here struggles to be as compelling as her theme.
Stuart Allen of San Antonio graphs changes in light and color at sunrise, sunset, and high noon into color-bar charts. Sharon Harper of Cambridge uses multiple long exposures of night skies to log patterns of polka-dot moons, diagonal and horizontal lines (star paths), and flaming clouds. Chris McCaw exposes his photos so long that the sun actually burns lines across his prints. These artists' concepts are interesting, but the work is dry.
Matthew Pillsbury of New York considers time spent pursuing electronic entertainment with photos exposed for the hour a couple watched Desperate Housewives in a San Diego hotel bed or the 36 minutes someone played a video game in a Las Vegas hotel. People become flickering ghosts before glowing TVs. The sense of lives passed in synthetic worlds is further emphasized by, for instance, the Eiffel Tower replica seen out the window of the Las Vegas room.