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Imagined Lives

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Willem Diepraam

at Stephen Daiter, through February 23

Tom Denlinger

at TBA Exhibition Space, through March 2

My least favorite of Willem Diepraam's 26 photographs at Stephen Daiter is a portrait of a sad-eyed woman with a deeply lined dark face and white hair. True, the elegant textures in Suriname, Paramaribo, 1975 ennoble the subject, and the photograph conveys her humanity. But this is the only close-up in which someone gazes into his camera--the other images conceal as much as they reveal, creating a provocative tension between the seen and the unseen. Five boys crowded together look in through a small window in Health Clinic Close to Missira, Mali, ca. 1980, taken inside a mostly bare room with some rudimentary medical supplies on a rickety table. While there's a clear social theme--health care is limited and exclusive--the photo also suggests an untold story. Could the clinic have been abandoned?

Diepraam, who was born in Amsterdam in 1944 and lives there today, began his career documenting demonstrations in the late 60s as a photojournalist. In Willem Diepraam (a book available in the gallery), he's quoted as saying of these photographs that he intended "to ruthlessly force the gaze of the viewer in one single direction: where I wanted it to go." Yet even his early photos are often complex. The human and animal figures in Paramaribo, Suriname, 1975, a street scene, look away from the viewer: a boy touches a birdcage, a girl appears to be reaching through a window, and a dog lies in the foreground, seemingly oblivious to the photographer. With their backs turned, they seem to wall off the space in front of them to outsiders. On the other hand, the photographer might be protecting their privacy.

"A good photo must have various layers," Diepraam has said; by contrast a head-on portrait can seem too literal and intrusive. Hiding or deemphasizing faces suggests respect for his subjects, especially those in vulnerable circumstances. By showing just enough for us to imagine their lives, Diepraam makes these images all the more powerful.

At the same time, a photograph like Paramaribo, Suriname, 1975 is wonderfully physical, celebrating the textures and rhythms of the mottled, discolored boards on the houses. Maria's Ribbon, Lima, Pl. 7, ca. 1989 presents an even more chaotic mix: it shows the cardboard, cloth, and corrugated metal of a squatter's home. Its details are also visually striking: through an opening in the facade we can see the top of a little girl's head and the neat white ribbon in her hair. But again her face is hidden, as is the dark interior. We're invited to imagine the story behind the carefully tied bow.

In these images animals often seem as cognizant as humans. A girl and two cows stand before a cloudy sky at dusk in Suriname, Nickerie, Clarapolder, 1975; she's just another part of the environment, with a presence no stronger than theirs. The smallest of the three cows in Friesland, 1979 seems to look out at the camera with an intelligent eye. But once again Diepraam mixes visibility and concealment--another's head is out of the frame, and the third is only partly visible, suggesting that he treats cows with the same gravity as he does people.

Even in his landscape photos Diepraam uses barriers and darkness to introduce mystery. The most prominent feature of Groningen, 1976 is a line of diagonal shadows cast by trees across a field. They lead toward a vanishing point, but the camera's relatively low angle and the flat land mean that not every detail is revealed--this isn't a maplike layout in Renaissance perspective. In one of three images titled Landschap aan Zee, 1994, smoke rises far behind an isolated slab of junk metal. Though the place and date inform us that the photo was taken in peacetime, what looks like the mouth of a cannon--actually part of the rubble from an abandoned steel plant (distant steel plants are the source of the smoke)--might cause a viewer to imagine war in a peaceful Dutch present.

For three of his five color prints on view at TBA, Tom Denlinger constructed miniature dioramas of cut flowers and "assorted trash" he picked up from alleys. He also pulled all the petals off some of the flowers. Unlike Diepraam, he photographs artificial scenes rather than documents the world. Yet the out-of-focus areas in Denlinger's images are as compelling as Diepraam's use of concealment. In earlier photos Denlinger--who was born in Los Angeles in 1953 and has lived in Chicago for the last 24 years--often obscured the image by placing his hand in front of the lens; in part because the focus is so shallow, these images achieve a similar sense of confinement and incompleteness.

Field Location: Tu31b_0825 shows pieces of cardboard and other detritus in the background and two rows of petalless tulips, of which only the pistils are in focus while the stems recede into fuzziness and darkness. Though traditionally flowers are used for showy displays of beauty, these are as minimal as the girl's ribbon in Diepraam's photo of the ramshackle shelter. Denlinger told me that part of his goal is to suggest "marginal spaces in the urban landscape--swamps or areas of transition." This image evokes a wasteland where flowers, however incomplete, somehow grow.

The flowers in Field Location: Tu31a_0825 are arranged in even more regular rows, and the background is even darker. Are they rooted in soil, or do they reside in some artificial space? Denlinger emphasizes that the flowers he purchases--like most of those for sale--have been crossbred to thrive in sometimes inhospitable human environments; again, the feeling is of flowers blooming miraculously.

Denlinger chose to pair his work with five paintings by David Driscoll, which Denlinger describes as apparent "aerial views of some sort of lunar landscape or artificial surface that he's creating with the paint." Driscoll's relatively flat surfaces--punctuated by bubbles or dense streaks, they appear to be extreme close-ups--do enhance the feeling that Denlinger's spaces are hermetic, claustrophobic, cut off from the wholeness of nature. And while the photographer's shallow focus spotlights what remains of the flowers in a traditional way, the fuzzy, confusing surroundings make them seem even more fragile, momentary, as if undermined by an unseen void.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Willem Diepraam, Tom Denlinger.

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