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The Quality of Cliche

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ANNE FISHBEIN

at Printworks

TOM ROMA

at J. Rosenthal Fine Arts

Two photographers from Yale -- Tom Roma is a teacher there, and Anne Fishbein, a recent MFA graduate -- are showing across the street from each other this month, and together their shows reconfirm certain verities about the medium in which they are working. Their imagery is not typical of what gets attention these days, for of late photography has been commandeered by conceptual artists who were trained in other media and take up this one only to discredit it. Photography exists for these artists not in its own right, as a means of expression with intrinsic value, but rather as both a symbol and a symptom of something else, a surefire sign that secondhand experiences are the only kind of which people in advanced technological societies are capable. According to this postmodernist mindset, photography is the prime example of our dependence on "simulacra," vague images that replace reality and diminish our capacity for an original response to life. If Roma and Fishbein are any indication, young photographers are reacting to this attack on their medium about as much as a river does to having stones thrown in it. Although the postmodernists have made a big splash, the history of photography itself, it seems, just keeps rolling along.

Fishbein is a classic street photographer working in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. (The last of these was the one in whose company the chairman of the program at Yale, Tod Papageorge, first picked up the medium.) The photographs she is showing here are all from a series she has been making along, as the exhibition's title informs us, Route 66. Like her subject matter, her photography has a bypassed look. It smacks of nostalgia. We can tell just from looking at it that the fast lane is now elsewhere. But this does not detract from the pleasure that can be taken in these pictures. Perhaps it even adds to it. For Fishbein does photography not as an avant-garde art form but as a discipline, a visual exercise in which subtlety, quickness, and precision are all practiced for their own sake.

Her powers of observation are all that she has going for her. She makes her pictures look right by adapting her own sense of scale to the place she is photographing. The smallness of the human race in the midst of the western desert is apparent not only from the long view she sometimes takes of the figure in the landscape, but from the forlorn way that a half dozen unoccupied folding chairs sit on a roadside somewhere facing the pulpit next to an itinerant preacher's camper, or even from the way that a man on a ladder reaches with a broom to push a single letter into place on an otherwise blank movie marquee. No stretch of prairie was ever lonelier than that man against the white emptiness of that theater sign. Fishbein has spent enough time out west to know the lay of the land. She has an eye for it the way someone learning a language might develop an ear for slang. "We ice your jugs iced free" it says on the sign at a trading post near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Like the remark, Fishbein's photographs are smart-alecky and full of double entendres.

There is very little in these photographs that we haven't seen before. Fishbein approaches her medium as an inherited set of conventions, an imagery with a history into which she would fit and from which she hopes her own work will follow. You might even say, if you wanted to be nasty, that she has produced a bunch of cliches. But that isn't the worst thing you can call a photograph. Cliche is in fact the word that means photographic negative in French, and it may be that this term applies to all photography -- that it's inherent in the medium -- whether photographers like it or not. It may be that the real beginning of wisdom about photography is not to condemn it for having this quality, as the postmodernists do, but to admit and even explore these very possibilities, to see where they might lead, as Fishbein seems to be attempting to do.

Roma is perhaps less wise, more ambitious, more anxious for an originality that will help him make a name for himself. He is, after all, the teacher. Perhaps he therefore feels a need to show he can go beyond what his students can do. It's a common failing among teachers.

He has been photographing for a number of years in Sicily, in an area where modern apartment blocks give way to barren, rocky fields in which shepherds and goatherds still tend their flocks. Like the landscape in which Fishbein works, this one is rich in symbolic possibilities. The abrupt juxtaposition of modern and ancient makes it a setting suitable for a myth. Roma tries to realize this potential with pictures that are at times so spare and minimal they might indeed be representations of some universal theme. In these pictures the quality of cliche blends pleasingly into that of archetype and stereotype.

But the photographs that compose the bulk of this show are portraits rather than landscapes, and in these Roma seems to be groping for some odd little in-between moment of expression that nobody has ever discovered before. He catches the boys who are his subjects on the offbeat, when their faces were probably in transition from one look to another, so that they take on a goofy beatific air. They look as if they have had too many summers out in the relentless sun and have become a shade light-headed and spiritual as a result, like saints in the desert. Whatever it is Roma is straining after here, it seems rather mannered and silly. I wonder whether it's occurred to him that a photographic vision might ultimately get to be too subtle -- that the niche a conventional photographer carves out for himself can become so slight, it's trivial. Maybe the received traditions in photography have been exhausted after all, as the postmodernist critics are claiming.

Still, though Roma's work may not have quite the vitality that Fishbein's does, its effect is not to make the history of photography seem effete or moribund either. One aspect of the way he works that I like a lot is that he builds his cameras himself. They're roll-film cameras like the 35-millimeter single-lens reflex, except with a larger format that makes his black-and-white prints nearly as detailed and flawless as those from a view camera would be. That he should construct his own cameras again makes the medium's history seem to have a certain self-sufficiency, an ability to sustain the great conventions of the past without worrying about what outsiders may think. The survival mentality I see here may only be that of the guy in the bunker, holed up with his canned goods and his tape deck waiting for the Armageddon raging above him to blow over. But I don't think the situation is as terminal as the postmodernists have been claiming. It's just that this is an age when photographers still capable of loving the medium on its own terms are finding that, as Anne Fishbein's work suggests, they must wander for a time in the wilderness.

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