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Lou Ouzer

A life in every face


Next to his 1966 Igor Stravinsky portrait, Rochester photographer Lou Ouzer (1913-2002) is quoted: "I look for background before I take anyone's picture." It's a simple rule, but one that allowed Ouzer to capture a life in every photograph. The portrait of Stravinsky, for example, doesn't show much of the composer's face. Taken in profile, it is all contemplation and heavy-rimmed glasses. You wouldn't recognize him from this picture, but you feel as if you know him.

A collection of Ouzer's portraits and abstract photos are on display at Image City Photography Gallery, and the number of works piled into the small, new space is a tribute to the man's long career (he took photos for the Eastman School on a freelance basis for 60 years). The fact that each portrait --- though many were taken in very similar circumstances and surroundings --- is uniquely and strongly the subject's alone, inviolately individual, is a tribute to his talent.

There are famous names here, but you find yourself drawn instead to the geography of the faces. The 1972 photo of the conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, for example, which Ouzer took "as if he were a monk in a cell with no light," shows just the portions of the man's face that protrude out of the photo's darkness: nose, forehead, cheekbone. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1965), standing in a tuxedo, has a mountain for a face. The lighting and the unflinching concentration of the photo show off his features like a topographic map. For him, Ouzer wanted a portrait "that could have been done with a hammer and chisel."

Simple, head-on portraits are rare in this collection. There are, instead, these face studies and quiet, candid shots. Pianist Rudolph Serkin (1974), for example, on stage at the Eastman Theatre, is caught peeking out of the closed curtain to count the house. A slice of light illuminates the front half of his face, showing a boyish and hopeful expression. Howard Hanson, an old man in a photo taken in 1979, has his arms raised, his face engaged, as he conducts a group of Eastman students.

There is a collection of Ouzer's more rarely seen abstract photos as well. Nylon and silk and bubble wrap are lit and twisted and pressed against the lens to create sultry images with rich texture. Many of these are demurely sexy: the silhouette of a woman leaning in shadow, a torso seen through black lace, a woman's crossed, stockinged legs shown from hip to ankle.

But there is nothing coy about his work. Each photo, abstract or realistic, offers a clear and steady look. And it's a photographer dedicated to research, to teasing out the personality and the texture, who offers it.

You should go if you want to see musicians wear their hearts on their faces.

Retrospective: the images of master photographer Lou Ouzer, through November 13 | Image City Photography Gallery, 722 University Avenue | Hours: Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 12 to 4 p.m. | 271-2540.