Gritty, glorious life in the city
Situated within the tradition of postwar photography --- or what photo-historian Naomi Rosenblum specifically referred to as "the straight image" and encompassing photographers such as Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Helen Levitt, among others --- is the work of Larry Merrill, whose selection of photographs comprises an ongoing body of work taken over the past several years.
From the end of WWII until the late 1960s our nation was characterized by political conformism and unabashed consumerism, and many artists embarked upon investigations of "pure form" and new ways to present new social realities. Like the young photographers coming of age in the United States after World War II, Merrill uses a formal language to convey what he wants to say about his subject matter that is both personal and insightful.
And his subject is New York, especially New Yorkers. When asked about why New York and not, say, Chicago, Merrill replied that he "knows" New York: he grew up in the city and even still has family there. As such, along with his interest in people and things in general, Merrill is also interested in issues of privacy and personal space in public settings.
For example, in "Untitled #12," a woman's legs, visible only from the knees down, jut out from beneath a telephone booth that also doubles as a signboard for a Cellini watch ad. From her posture, legs crossed at the ankle and calves ever so slightly inclined, we imagine that she is relaxed. If nothing else, it is a less self-conscious stance. Meanwhile, a man strolls by, and although we see neither the body of the woman nor the head of the man, we somehow "know" their respective genders.
It is this sense of the familiar --- however specious our notion of the familiar may be --- that makes Merrill's photographs intriguing. These scenes capturing snippets of a social landscape are appropriately ambiguous as well. "Untitled #13" features a nicely dressed woman rummaging in her (faux?) croco bag. She wears a snappy black jacket with white cording on the collar over a pale pink blouse paired with a short pale pink skirt with ruffles at the hem. She's so well coordinated that even her pointy-toed ankle strap pumps are pink with black patent trim. So, what's the problem? Well, the poor woman has a terrible scowl on her face --- bad day already? --- and some fashionistas might take issue with the woman's outfit. You know, something like Glamour's Fashion "Dos" and "Don'ts." The bottom line, however, is that there's a real palpable, uneasy urban tension, not unlike what one might find in a Winogrand or Friedlander.
In a very simple documentary manner, the photographs show what was there in the photographer's viewfinder. But since Merrill's formal language is also about rhythm and interval, it's as if the images "have really swerved into the oncoming traffic of that," as Merrill puts it. A practically literal representation of the latter is found in "Untitled #16," where two people pass in a crosswalk.
Walking away from the photographer, a woman in a turquoise skirt saunters by a man in khakis approaching the photographer. They apparently don't know each other and yet the woman's bare arm grazes against the shirted belly of the man. Where her walking hip movement seems to swing into the man's thigh, he in turn parries the gesture as if part of a well-choreographed dance. Still, these two are either so focused or so oblivious that their "collision" barely seems to register for either of them. Indeed, their apparent unwillingness to avoid one another presumes a kind of determined arrogance such that neither thought nor bothered to move. And there's that tension again. That rhythmic ebb and flow of the urban environment; of tangible, gritty, glorious life in the city.
Larry Merrill Photographs | through January 7 | M. Early Gallery, 80 Rockwood Place | Gallery hours: Tuesday 3-6 p.m., Thursday 4-7 p.m., Saturday 2-5 p.m.; or by appointment | 232-3380