Photography and social justice issues, the nexus remains a sticky situation, for several reasons. Photojournalism, for example, is awash in endless photos of proud persons staring down the camera, determined, by their moment in the flash, to fend off whatever social force is working against them. Most of these photos I find to trade in ersatz, prepackaged emotion, all of them yet another paean to egotism, and its “resistance” to any affront against it, and all bespeaking a middle class belief that photography, especially if “moving,” will save us from our sins. Even worse is fine art photography along the same lines, pride photos I call them, in which as if by some magical thinking we imagine that a beautiful photo of a dramatic face or body can offer love and help a person in need, if only by convincing unsympathetic viewers that “they are people too.” I continue to grouse too that when it comes to artists engaging in social justice issues, I still expect them to act and think like artists, and not like politicos, who are pretty dualistic in their arguing, based, more often than not, on fixed, nonnegotiable issues.
I was grousing on these issues again coming to see Zora J. Murff’s part in a two person show with Nathan Murray at Parallel Visions, a small gallery in the Parrish building in Lincoln. I had just seen a photography show at the Sheldon in which photojournalists gave war the apparent protest but tacit three cheers as all I saw was ersatz emotion and prepackaged visual strategies meant to manipulate us into a moment’s tear jerk, and then, having consumed the moment of pity, move on. Murff himself, as a political photographer, has waded into the world of the fine art look. In his most notable series of photographs thus far, Corrections (you can see all these on his website), he depicted not only the relics of daily life of youth let out of jail or prison but youths who, still in the juvenile justice system, have to wear anklets tracking them.
At first the beautiful surface and the serious demeanor made me wonder, more propaganda? But then I got the whole effect of a Murff photo when he, with organizational help, put a few of his photos on some easels in the lower lobby of the State Capital building in Lincoln last Spring when the Unicameral was considering a juvenile justice issue, and it was there that I got the full effect. As you passed by the photos your average viewer would think, more photos of youth, more pride, more solicitation of emotion, ie more exploitation, but, then, wait a tick, you realized that they were not prideful, staring you down, asking or forcing upon you compliance with their view, they were all somehow shying away from the camera, even effacing themselves, and THEN you saw the anklet. At that moment, you saw and saw into the essential inhumanness of this particular way of keeping track of juveniles in the system. Ok, it was great to get out of jail, but this device, in the community, it shamed them, it messed with their minds, it compromised their self-worth, it is, on a very basic human level, pretty darn cruel (but the bureaucracy always favors convenience and cost over considerations thereof). All of the gestures of the young people in his moving photos could be classified as effacements, a device which retrenches from the iconic, to hide, to tell you to go away, but often in a way that then comes at you out of left field, with reagentified surprise--just bringing us to experience that, it was surprisingly human.
I don’t want to call Murff a humanist as I am sure that is not a very radical thing to be these days, but I sensed the same effect in Murff’s Uncertain Terms series of photo collages up through the week at Parallel Visions. The works consist of black canvas panels presented as if minimalist paintings, but then Murff has affixed by a very careful tacking, in irregular formation like you might see on a MOST WANTED bulletin board in a police station, images of young black men and women who have been victims of police policy over the past several years. The images derive from a database of names and pictures kept online by The Guardian, Murff downloaded them, re-presented them, then gave them a poster feeling by altering the word above them, and then affixed them, meticulously, to the black backing. I have been looking at minimalist political art since the days of the AIDS protest art of the late 1980s. Some of it was so subtle, I wondered, why are you whispering? Also, the idea of doing art based on mug shots goes back at least as far as Warhol’s Ten Most Wanted, and I recollect that early on Felix Gonzalez-Torres allowed viewers to pick up a sheet of a stack of large sheets of paper on which were images of, also, mug shots or some sort.
The mug shot was a classic pop art device to comment on the objectification and reduction-to-a-number of the modern person in a bureaucratic world (you feel the mug shot when you go to the doctor’s office too). The mug shot has also become a humiliation trope when involving movie stars in popular culture. Was this more of the same? I worried. But, no, the pictures come from the database, and as such they were all that the family had, family photos, as a result, you wade into the reflective micro-zone close to the surface of the panels and are surprised to see smiling faces, faces leaning back, happy, it’s a shock, it instantly de-objectifies the individuals and restores to them their humanity. You realize that they are, even though anonymous, even though increasingly reduced to a number in a bureaucratic reportage, human beings with lives, friends, relations (it’s always amazed me that if you add up all the POV and subjectivity a person develops in a lifetime in our “personalized” culture each person ends up being a private universe unto themselves, when they die, a whole universe dies, these thoughts occurred to me here too). So, it is an important little spin, away from the institutionalized form of photography, to something more personal. And then there is more.
Most such art is ersatz and argumentative in a rationale way, leading the witness, offering us only confirmation of our outrage. Murff could easily have fallen into that trap, and it’s quite possible to do a quick walk-by and not get anything from these dark objects. But I was taxed by the fact that I had to weave through the gallery because I showed up early, so things were still being set up, then the light was odd, and so I stepped in real close. And this is where the magic is. Murff lists “foil” as one of his media, that would seem to explain the gloss and reflectivity of the surfaces. I took some photos and was like, there was no way they were going to show up, but then was surprised because there was so much ambient light caught up that the photos came out just fine. And what the photos capture is the unsteady nature of the image in our vision, as a kind of visual metaphor of where they exist in our memory. Michael Brown? one hopes that people remember, but that was 30 months ago, time moves on, I would guess I could ask people on the street, and most will have forgotten. It’s even worse for the nameless from the first, they just become roadkill in the files of public life, and then, for them, public memory turns to amnesia.
It is hard to remember, Murff seems to acknowledge, as the faces go positive and negative, reflective then dark. As the foil reacts to the light, sometimes they black out, at other times rise up as silver ghosts, then float as phantom, sometimes the black simmers down into a glittery gray that just feels like anger about to burst out all over again. But anger maybe of the….young dead, those taken, as we say, “before their time” (all traditional cultures believed that the young dead were especially angry to be dead, having missed so much of life, Romans tossed roses onto soldiers during homecomings to exorcise them of any angry young dead soldier soul that might’ve “jumped” to them during battle). Murff mentions in his statement that a memorial stance is also woven into his complex photo re-presentation. This is where his meticulousness comes in, these sheets are beautifully printed, even more precisely black-tacked, they exist as in, not a real police station, but some police station on the other side of the wall between life and dream (my only reference here can be to popular culture, where in Nightmare on Elm Street 3, I think, there was an eerie dream version of a police station where the WANTED photos went weird). In this police station where Death is the captain and Morpheus presides the signs tell terrible truths, EXCISED, REDACTED, ABSTRACTED (my favorite, for in the whole political debate, we all of us are guilty of abstraction, these are real people who died). The words rise up, wanting to shout, but then recede back into the darkness, silenced. Caught in the meticulousness of them one is carried as if to a mausoleum where ashes and lovingly framed memorial pictures are kept, by some, at graves or urn slots. One does in fact think of life and death, how we forget. It’s a big surprise, to be lead to these contemplations by an artist who started with an overt political purpose.
All of these are deeply intimate human emotions, as in his Corrections, Murff has worked to deconstruct the normal expectations and uses of a convention of photographic imagery in our culture, and then not only deconstructed the content, all those lives lost, but also the representation of them, even, actually, on the database. But he has not “deconstructed” to get us to a place of ironic intellectualism, he has undertaken the knock-down to get us back to the ground of authentic feeling. There is so much noise in politics today, most of it shouted at full lung, that it is disarming to hear a voice speak to human truth: to cut through the politics, and the system, and the police-training-plus-stigmatizing-fear that results in so many “shoot first-ask questions later” kills, that one often forgets about the people involved. Murff’s complicated musing on representation and memory cuts through all that, and for that works effectively as art.
(I confess to focusing on Murff in my tour, but, in fact, Nathan Murray’s ceramic portraits of kids from the neighborhood, in a tradition of street realism that also goes back deep into hip-hop days of the 80s, also deal with effacement:one figure has a hoodie, which you see first, turned from you, but then there is recovery of self, as behind or in front of it is the sweet face of a fully alive young woman. Another robust portrait in 3D consists of a very confident young lady, who nonetheless is partly masked. They are excellent portraits, even though I viewed them in a supporting role).
(Note: Murff also works in the nexus between photography and memory in a collaborative show, Fade like a Sigh, up at the Kimmel Harding Arts Center, Nebraska City, through February 17).