Hard Labor and Other Pretty Things

The photograph as documentary; the photograph as idealism

A beleaguered Target employee pushes an oversize load of metal shopping carts across an asphalt parking lot. Usually well-lit and crammed with cars, the lot is dark and dotted with a few lone vehicles; and now the carts, like cattle, are being herded home. Although it represents a fairly familiar sight, in Stephen Dahl's "Pushing Carts," a photograph on view at the pARTS Photographic Arts, the scene takes on a strong graphic quality. The train of metal carts buckles to one side forming a dramatic curve that cuts through the center of the shot leading the viewer's eye to the face of the woman who, though lost in thought, nevertheless directs her heavy load with an expert hand. In many works like this, Dahl gives the viewer a glimpse of the mixture of attentiveness and boredom that often comes with routine work, yet is hard to capture on film.

By examining people on the job, Dahl, who is a social worker, stands in the footsteps of socially conscious photographers of the early 20th Century like Lewis Hine and Ben Shahn, who documented the lives and labor conditions of the working class and the poor. As with these earlier photographers, Dahl's observation of economic hardships led him to explore the work experiences of average people.

The earliest pieces included in the show date from 1986 to 1993, when Dahl became interested in what the news media dubbed the "family farm crisis." "When you think of what the media typically records in terms of an economic struggle like the farm crisis, you don't see images of happiness or resilience," Dahl says, picking his words carefully. "Instead you see auctions, which are really funerals."

Having visited a group of families living in Goodhue County over the course of seven years, Dahl represents the family farm in a way different from that of the typical photojournalist, who may show up for a few hours, then disappear. The vitality of the farm emerges in "Corn Crib," where a buoyant father and son work together within a ring of wire, standing atop thousands of ears of piled corn. Dahl says that he was particularly struck by the prevalence of extended families in the culture of the family farm. In "Ray Wrestling," for instance, a grandfather tussles affectionately with his teenage grandson.

In his more recent work, Dahl has examined the activities of workers in service and manufacturing industries. Here the viewer feels a sense of discovery, as Dahl uncovers what might never be seen, except by other people in the trade. In a 1994 photograph titled "Air Conditioning," two Northwest Airlines maintenance-crew members work on the runway beneath an airplane. Their bodies are reflected on the plane's shiny underbelly as one of the men, with what seems like Olympian strength, flexes his body while wrestling with a serpentine air-conditioning coolant hose.

Because he spends six to ten hours per day on a job site for several days at a time, Dahl says, his subjects generally become accustomed to his presence and forget that there is a camera in their midst. This is true of "Silhouette of House Keeper," which pictures a cleaning woman completely immersed in her task. Shot in low light with a handheld camera, this shot of a uniformed woman dusting a section of gaudy, embossed wallpaper in a generic hotel room expresses an uncanny silence. As Dahl puts it, this work communicates the "isolation and the loneliness, the quietness of just doing your job."

 

New York-based photographer Sheila Metzner produces fine-art photographs that are intended to move viewers in the way painted masterpieces do. Seemingly unconcerned with the workaday world, Metzner offers the viewer idealized classical nudes, sublime Romantic landscapes, and artistically composed still-lifes in the spirit of fine-art photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Man Ray. In one of the earliest selections on view in her current show at the Weinstein Gallery, "White Calla, White Vase" (1977), Metzner works with light and shadow to produce a repeating pattern of shapes--a balanced, harmonious, and monumental image that speaks the same language as a Renaissance Madonna.

The surfaces and tonalities found in Metzner's photographs suggest the unusual texture and color of delicately worked pastels. The deep purple fruit shown in 1980's "Three Plums," for example, rests on a surface of orange, pale blue, and forest green, closely approximating the palette of a painter. The rich and mellow colors seen in these works are the consequence of a rare carbon printing method--most color photography is printed with dyes--called the Fresson process. Developed by the Fresson family in the early 20th Century, this process is executed in France by a small family atelier. Strictly guarding the secret of this procedure, the Fresson family processes prints for only 11 artists throughout the world.

Explaining that she came "from Brooklyn and from poverty," Metzner says that she tries to avoid difficult realities or negative aspects of life in her art. Having placed her work in Vogue and Vanity Fair, the photographer now spends much of her time traveling the world searching for gorgeous and unspoiled terrain. "I've made it my goal in life to get to those beautiful untouched places in the world, to record them, and to try to protect them," Metzner says, while laughing a bit at her idealistic, yet sincere, concept of her role as an artist.

Some of the strongest pieces in the show are photographs of these landscapes: desert sand dunes, waterfalls, and icebergs that Metzner has visited in her travels. "Alaska Iceberg" features an enormous outcropping of pastel purple, blue, and gray ice, set against a darkened, cloud-streaked sky. Of this iconic picture, Metzner says, "The image of the iceberg is like a god to me. It's a kind of reminder of greater powers, greater forces, and greater energies that you can come in contact with."

 

Stephen Dahl's "Working" is on display at pARTS Photographic Arts through October 24; (612) 824-5500. Sheila Metzner's photographs are showing at the Weinstein Gallery through October 23; (612) 822-1722.

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