It felt a little odd and even a little masochistic to be dragging myself downtown in this weather to look at photographs of people lounging in the sun. The photography department of Columbia College, which curated the current exhibit at the City Gallery, must have realized as much. They aptly titled the show Out of Season: Photographs at the Chicago Summer.
Fortunately, the four photographers featured are talented enough that the works on display command attention in their own right, not just as a diversion from low temperatures and melting piles of snow.
By far the best photographs in the show are Joseph Sterling’s black and whites from 1959–1964. His photographs mostly capture people at the beach. They all have strong compositions and subjects who ignore the camera. Looking at these photographs feels something like watching a play.
Sterling manages to capture intimate moments without disrupting them or making too much fuss. One particularly wonderful shot is of a couple lying on the beach among some plants. The plants shield the couple from the sun and other prying eyes, and also frame them for Sterling’s camera. The figures are shadowy and hard to make out, which adds something of a voyeuristic rush. The man and woman look at each other, yet they do not seem to notice Sterling’s presence.
Another lovely shot is a close-up of a young woman in her bathing suit. She has a perfectly nonplussed expression as she looks just away from the camera. She seems completely unaware of Sterling’s presence. Her face fills only a little of the scene. The rest focuses on the sensuous, but not sexualized, curve her black suit cuts against the light sand and her skin.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto has only three photographs in the exhibit. All are black and whites from 1949–1952. Each is a look from behind at a row of people standing at a beach bar. The composition is simple, but by no means sparse. The photos force viewers to notice details and textures that might otherwise go unnoticed, like lines that water makes when a swimsuit is partially dry.
There are also two photographers in the show whose work is more contemporary as well as in color. One is Wes Pope, a staff photographer for the Chicago Tribune. His photographs from 1998–2000 are certainly artful, but they still look like a press photographer’s work.
Most of the photographs tend to shy away from suggesting any attachment to the subjects and are often shot from a distance.
One especially fine shot of his depicts people in swimsuits lying on a large rock. Other rocks surround this rock, and their cracks and crevasses cut a mesmerizing design in the mostly gray scene. Like many of his photographs, this one is a hazy and a bit gritty, and actually looks like it may have been shot at The Point.
Yvette Dostatni’s photographs are all from the summer of 2000. Although they indicate talent, Dostatni’s photographs are the weakest in the show. She seems to be trying to evoke Diane Arbus but fails. Her photographs are a little too condescending to their subjects to do what Arbus does so well: take pictures of people on the fringes of society without overemphasizing the extent to which they are odd or out of the mainstream.
One of Dostatni’s shots is a close-up of a woman’s leg; the woman is wearing a sequined gold skirt and white tights and has a flag or banner hanging from below her knee that proudly declares “I Love Elvis.” The photograph is extremely well composed: The leg is at an angle and slightly off to the side, so the photograph has a deep background that frames the leg well.
Still, a viewer cannot help but realize that the scene is supposed to be funny. Because all that we see is the subject’s leg, it is hard not to laugh at her as one laughs at Tinkerbelle, Paris Hilton’s cruelly mistreated dog. I cannot help but think that if Arbus had taken the shot, it would be a little less dehumanizing. Arbus probably would have found a way to give the viewer a picture of the person that still encouraged a chuckle, but a less unkind one.
Nonetheless, the fact that Dostatni’s photographs are this small show’s worst in the collecion means Photographs of the Chicago Summer is worth trekking to—even in the middle of the brutal Chicago Winter.