The third-floor office of photographer Vince Leo at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is an odd place to spin off into a reverie. The space is sterile and white and vaguely discomfiting, its only concession to the human need for visual variety being the window looking south over the Whittier neighborhood. Which is odd, as I had come to the office one Thursday afternoon to look at Leo's anything-but-visually-uninteresting series of photos, soon to be mounted at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as "Three Stories about Little America." (Disclosure: My wife works at the museum.) Under the hum of fluorescent office lighting, we sifted through a duplicate set of the 5-by-7-1/2-inch digital prints. When finished, they will be framed and placed in a line at eye level around the walls of the gallery.
Leo explained that these were culled from a collection of several thousand snapshots he had taken of his family in Columbus, Ohio, and other places, since 1975. The images are impossible to describe in one neat sentence, for besides the fact that there are 92 of them, they are simultaneously deceptively simple (as family portraits) and yet surprisingly complex (as aesthetic objects). And it was just as I was trying to formulate a description for the work that I spaced out. To be more specific, I was overcome with thoughts of my own grandfather, Thomas P. Fallon. More about that later.
Leo himself is a bit of a puzzle. He is a compact man, with a neat head of cropped gray hair. He is friendly but holds himself upright with the reserve of a distant uncle from another state. Even more to the point, Leo is rather spare in talking about his work and how he makes it. For instance, he says he "never realized what [he] was doing" as he took these particular photographs. He had no plan in mind; he just started taking them. "I started doing my grandmother's house because I had just read James Agee's Death in the Family," he says. "Then I left to go to New York City for five years, and I came back and realized that nobody has a house like this. I thought it was normal, but I started realizing there was another culture present."
It wouldn't be as interesting if this series were merely a documentary of the immigrant experience. In fact, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Leo's work exists on three successively abstract levels. The first level is the surface narrative about the life of his grandmother and succeeding two generations. The second and more artistic level involves the aesthetics of photography--in terms of color, composition, lighting, gestural effects, and the like. And the third level concerns the intangible and uncertain relationship between memory and story. My suspicion is that while viewers will first and foremost recognize the narrative in the work, the other two levels of the photos will come to them as an afterthought. Part of the reason for this is the show's organization.
Leo sets the exhibit as a running story in three parts, one for each generation of family: "Anna," his grandmother; "Ernie and Glo," his parents; and "The Kids," him and his siblings and their children. The images begin just to the left of the door to the gallery: his grandmother's clapboard house, her vegetable garden, a spare, black-iron bed frame, a graying windowsill, the faded and dented gold Dodge Charger. The images come at you straight on, broken by a passage of wall-mounted text that describes Anna's arrival in America in the 1930s as a 20-year-old unmarried woman. The colors in these images are foreign and from another time: gray and dun, interrupted only by Anna's purple dress and headscarf and the green of her ubiquitous garden stuff. These are images of aging, of solitude, of the airlessness of life's closure.
The first chapter fades into the second chapter with an image of Anna in her casket. Now we see the family opening up, Leo's parents becoming part of the American landscape. Time moves forward, and the colors change. These are the primary tones of 1950s Technicolor: sky blue in the walls of Leo's parents' house, red in the American flag and in the sweater of his mother, yellow in curtains and throw-blankets, green in the well-kept lawn. The parents move into the society that Anna avoided. Neighbors come for dinner; Leo's mother wears an "I'm proud to be an Italian" pin at a social gathering. The faces are open, smiling, warm. Most of the shots depict the comforts of home and end with the parents white-haired and comfortable there.
The third chapter is less comfortable. It includes a more diverse range of images, depicting the kids moving out into the world. Cars travel across the landscape. Women dance at a wedding. Leo's sister poses in a yoga headstand in her sleek urban apartment. Leo's daughter poses with her ethnically diverse softball team. As the range of images expands into the lives of the kids, Leo unveils a confetti-like assortment of secondary and tertiary tones: maroon, mahogany, ocher, pink, magenta, yellow-orange, midnight blue. It is an explosion outward into a more modern, diverse, and indefinite American life.