What can you expect at a Sarah Lawrence College photography exhibit? Beyond the common staples of cheap wine and Stop & Shop platters of fruit and cheese, the white walls on the first floor of the Heimbold Visual Arts Center exposed a thoughtful representation of student artwork. With Joel Sternfeld’s First-Year-Studies exhibition opening on February 16th and Katie Murray’s Intermediate Photography class exhibition concluding nine days earlier, a visitor of both shows can attest to the conversation both classes are participating in with each other.
As a member of the intermediate class, I was privy to a sort of insider knowledge— the thought process, the stories behind the images. As visitors walked through the show, many pointed to the “haunting” sense emanating from a photograph of an empty green room filled with forgotten things, illuminated by one single square of light by Jeff Reed ’17. His portraiture, installed salon-style on the far right wall, drew viewers in as the work pointed at something about human relationships in images of color as well as black and white. Nja Brown’18 tackled societal degradation of black hair and exhibited a collection of images celebrating black hair and black culture while simultaneously remarking on the pressure black women are burdened by as they try to fit society’s Anglo-Saxon standards of beauty. Arielle Gironza’18 explored family dynamics and identities through personal spaces and what they can say about the way someone sees and thinks and lives. The photograph of her step-father’s face obscured by his newspaper as his feet rested regally on a step stool resonated with viewers and images of their own fathers reading the Sunday morning paper.
The photographs constructed in meticulous attention to geometric detail and its relationship with color by Maya Millan’18 brought viewers to a pause, then a stop. Almost cinematic in its grandiose aesthetic, she directs your attention to small quiet spaces often unnoticed or overlooked in the sprawling urban city we inhabit, revealing their own inhabitation in us as well.
In both exhibits, each student’s unique artistic vision is made apparent through not only the images themselves but the differentiating forms in which they were installed on the walls. The exhibition entitled “POSTPOSTPOST” in Drake’s “Hotline Bling” font refers to the class blog in which students respond to the professor’s posted “catalyst” image with their own images to begin a photo conversation, responding to each other’s posts as well. Such an idea also exemplifies the students’ efforts to participate in an increasingly immediate platform for photography while attempting the same amount of care and thought as the creators of the posted catalysts, by artists such as William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Katherine Opie and Latoya Ruby Fraiser among others.
Regardless of diverse backgrounds, teaching methods, materials, and artistic visions, both classes confer with the other the question of fine art photography’s place in the twenty-first century. In a time where everyone with a camera phone and an Instagram account considers themselves to be a photographer, it is quite a courageous thing to call yourself a photographer, to declare that you, despite the rapidly accessible format, have something to say that is more profound than a snapshot, to make images with thought and care. That sentiment, that delicate concern, is the tightrope that is grounded in Sternfeld’s and Murray’s class exhibits and the student’s artwork brings it to the forefront. As the viewer, however, it is your choice to decide to walk onto that tightrope, and perhaps, arrive at something new. I would advise courage.
Vanilla Kalai Anandam '19