ANOTHER WASHINGTON: Photography of
American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center
Tuesday through Sunday 11a.m. - 4.p.m — Through October 25, 2009
Review by: Grace Cavalieri
Paul Feinberg is a photographer who has documented the sights of this city since the 1970’s. This collection comes from that era and just in time to check in on the timelessness of Washington DC, to see what we were and what we are. It is about people, the lives of those who lived here behind closed doors, outside of the fancy hotels and the marble pillars, outside the gray offices, a tangled skein of people who are unraveled individually long enough for us to take a good look at them. Each one has his/her own story line.
Paul’s Subjects are a little above, below or behind the radar. They are the disenfranchised, the exceptional, the outsider and the artist. Paul goes for the original, the personalities that are smaller than dewdrops in a city that is a power center; then he magnifies them through photography to make it all matter. Paul Feinberg makes us ask," What is imperative about these people?” His characters occupy the improbable stages of street corners, tattoo parlors, the dressing rooms of DC. Beyond the shadow of the capitol building, the lens is turned on some unlikely prospects for portraiture. There are some 70 portraits at the Kazan Gallery, and with each candidate we realize that something different is being expressed. What is the action that has just taken place? Something, we feel, has happened right before the subject is framed into a permanent pose forever. We feel this because some energy still exists in the photograph. Some psychological action has occurred, and is revealed. What arrests the viewer is that we believe the individuals are in the midst of a negotiation with the photographer, there is an exchange of some sort. Something is needed by the subject; some need is expressed to be seen, and to be known by us.
Perhaps there is a universal chord with an artist where he connects the conscious world with the unconscious world. However any work of art then is only as good as the artist’s understanding of the physical world, and his desire to capture the nonphysical, or the invisible, which we can, for lack of anything better, call “spirit.” Now we have a definition of the difference between the artist and the craftsperson. And our understanding is enlarged about what happens beyond photography classes and the making of the technical.
The photographer must stand on his own. There is no zooming in and zooming out for him, once the product is hung. There is no capacity for change in still photography. This art must find the energy within the subject and the process so that it can stand alone. Does perspective make intimacy? What are the qualities that compel us to stare and stare at a fixed object and still be fueled by excitement? What are the heroic qualities to be found in a street person or a stripper? And how does that quality interest the photographer who serves to interest us? These may be metaphysical questions but they are fair ones. Paul Feinberg is capable, above other portrait photographers, to provide what one pundit calls a sensual hypnosis. I take this to mean that we are captivated by the experience of someone existing in and out of time at once. It seems there is a magnetism which makes us look, and is the source of our satisfaction. Perhaps we complete some sort of journey the photographer and the photographed began together.
With each subject Feinberg captures, we are reminded each had a life before this moment with him. They have each been somewhere and are going somewhere else. He catches them on the wing, behind the bar, playing pool, or looking squarely at us. These people are caught in time. Their own time. Making us care is the artist's work, his commitment, even I would say, his responsibility.
Feinberg’s show excels because we are with real people even if they stopped for a moment to pose. It is about spiritual motion. The double whammy here is that these folks are older now (photographed some 30 plus years ago.) Many have passed away. And more to treasure is the fact that the energy in the photograph has gone nowhere at all. It has not suicided like the great artist Carroll Sockwell. He remains intact, with vibrancy, a cigarette and a glass of tonic water still sizzling and effervescent. Or Art Buchwald. a Washington icon, his experience remains. Also, "The Great Hildegard” at the Plaza, New York Ave and 14th Street. Burlesque has gone but the idea of burlesque still belongs because Feinberg has documented her hopeful brassiness.
There are other fascinating photographs of store fronts, humble buildings in “Another Washington,” certainly not the marble ones in this city of power, but structures that tell about our cultural practices—the drycleaners, palm readers, tuxedo rentals. Here, once again, Paul captured impending movement. Someone in these places wants something; someone is willing to give something in order to get it. What mystery is beyond a simple rental store on Georgia Avenue in DC, or a store on 13th and U St. before the gentrification turned it into chic.
All Art is about form. Art is usually an artifact, a beautiful Ruin, by the time it is made, simply by the act of changing and making it. The wonderful aspect of photography and particularly this exhibit is that the mystery caught in these spaces of Washington D C remains. The radical individual still stares out in a defiant individualism. Because the photographer provides the architecture for human conduct, poising it for a moment, his decisions change reality to illusion. We think what we see will go on forever.
There is a person within the picture and a viewer outside the picture. There is genius in knowing how to connect them so that what we see matters. It’s the artist’s job but somebody’s got to do it.
Paul Feinberg knows what to see and how to connect us.
Stop and spend some time in front of the portrait of Al Burton. The text describes him: ”A fragile man of discerning tastes and culture, Al was a devotee of the arts and artists and a regular at most major local art openings. Although homeless, Al always showed up in a suit and tie, which when he wasn’t wearing he kept in a waterproof bag under the front steps of a Dupont Circle townhouse. Al loved the artists' receptions – the conversations, the wine and hors d’oeuvres, and all mediums of art. He usually left with a few carefully wrapped canapés.” The show continues through October 25, 2009.
Grace Cavalieri is a writer and a critic. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.