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Now and Then

A double-edged show at the Center for Creative Photography surveys both contemporary and classic work

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A baby is crying in the gallery at the Center for Creative Photography.

Its cry is the plaintive wail of the newborn, the kind that unnerves anyone who's ever been a parent. Luckily, though, the troubling caterwauling is emanating not from an abandoned infant but from a DVD installation, in the big show In the Center of Things: A Tribute to Harold Jones.

But Jones is only indirectly responsible for the baby. The founding director of the center, founding professor of the UA photography program and founding director of the groundbreaking LIGHT Gallery in New York City, Jones was asked to curate a show to mark his retirement next year from the UA. But the generous Jones turned the honor around. Instead of putting together an exhibition of his own work, he created a two-part tribute to his fellow photogs. The one that includes the wailing DVD-baby honors the photography profs at the UA; the other pays homage to the photographers Jones showed at LIGHT back in the early '70s.

His selfless impulse has produced a fascinating double show that traces the fortunes of photography over the last 30 years. The crying baby, for instance, is part of "Kyle," an up-to-the-minute, 2004 work by Carol Flax, a UA art prof since 1997. Flax represents the brave new world of high-tech art; in fact, her 21st-century work can hardly even be called photography. Her piece, scarcely a photographic "still," has been set free not only from conventional photography's flat paper dimensions but also from its silence and immobility.

The crying Kyle, a DVD-version of Flax's first grandchild, is projected onto a baby blanket that rests atop a pedestal. The virtual baby wiggles, squeezes his eyes, opens his mouth--and screams. Looking down on his writhing full-color form is a series of small, wall-mounted DVD monitors, each of them capturing the fragmented faces of his doting relatives.

Flax notes in an artist's statement that she tries to "find liminal spaces where ... boundaries shift and nothing is quite certain." It could be the motto of the show. Flax and her fellow profs, including Kenneth Shorr, the retired Judith Golden and the late Todd Walker, have all made a point in their careers of shifting photography's boundaries. They've chemically altered their images (Shorr), mixed their media (Golden) and photosilkscreened from digital imagery (Walker). Jones has made a selection of Walker's wildly colored computer abstractions; of Golden's fairy-tale assemblage portraits of young girls; and of just one of Shorr's huge pieces, unframed and unmatted, with a conglomeration of vague figures drawn from contemporary life.

Even more interesting is the section simply called LIGHT. If the UA section is all about now, LIGHT is about then. A dazzling inventory of both classic and innovative work from 30 or more years ago, it gathers together big-time names such as Alfred Stieglitz, Frederick Sommer, Garry Winogrand, André Kertész, Paul Strand and Aaron Siskind. All of these photographers exhibited at Jones' New York gallery, though the works in the show are not necessarily the ones they put up on his Madison Avenue walls. Instead, Jones has taken them from the center's own collection, said Doug Nickel, CCP director. Jones' personal connections, developed at LIGHT, were invaluable when he came west to the center in 1975, Nickel said; he persuaded a number of his LIGHT artists to donate their archives to the fledgling center.

In 1971, when Jones was a young curator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, a wealthy photography aficionado by the name of Tennyson Schad came calling. Schad wanted to set Jones up in a New York gallery devoted entirely to photography. With New York now the epicenter of photo-mania, it's almost impossible to believe that, in those days, the city had only one photography gallery. That one showed historic work, but LIGHT had an unprecedented mission: to exhibit the work of living photographers. Jones took Schad up on his offer, but he was taking a decided risk: He opened LIGHT at a time when critics were still debating whether photography actually qualified as an art form.

Jones didn't always stick to his self-imposed rule that his artists had to be alive, especially when he had a chance to show the great pioneer Stieglitz, who had died in 1946. His 1907 "The Steerage" hangs at the center in a slightly muddy photogravure version, but it's nevertheless a brilliant work, aligning Stieglitz's formal aesthetic with photography's documentary powers. It pictures immigrants jostling together on a crowded ship, but the photographer has caught them as they idle up and down the ship's outdoor stairs. The banister slices through the picture in a sharp diagonal, set off by a man's white straw hat.

Other photos from earlier in the 20th century include Kertész's 1929 "Broken Plate, Paris." We see the City of Light from high above, through a shattered windowpane; the cracks' tendrils trace over the classic Parisian roofscape of steeples and mansards. Sommer checks in with the austere, 1939 "Chicken," an elegant picture of an inelegant subject--a chopped-off chicken head. The body of the skinned animal glistens, and its blood pools out onto the plain white background. Strand's 1930 landscape, "Near Abiquiu, New Mexico," could be a template for a Georgia O'Keeffe.

But if Jones exhibited the early masters, he also made room for the young Turks just making their names in the 1970s. "Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles," a 1969 Winogrand black and white, embodies the collision of classes and concerns that Winogrand loved about the urban streetscape. In the long shadows of a late California afternoon, three white women in fashionable big hair saunter down a sidewalk, while a black woman at the bus stop, weary from her day of work, watches. Jerry N. Ueslmann's 1967 "Small Woods Where I Met Myself (Final Version)" surrealistically doubles an image of a woman in triplicate in a forest, with the bottom half of the picture a mirror image of the top. But in the upside-down image below, the middle woman has disappeared.

And there were the innovators who, as the UA profs later would, were already pushing and pulling at the fledgling art form's black-and-white boundaries. Keith Smith's 1971 sewn assemblage, "Margaret Gave Me a Rainbow," is mostly made of green cloth and gold tassels; its only photographic credential is a tiny black-and-white of an ear embedded in the material. Doug Prince's 1973 "Untitled" foreshadows Flax's assemblages. It's a small Plexiglas box with a picture of a park promenade lined with trees. But floating in front of this photo are three tiny film images--of dead bodies? Of babies?

These adventurous works help tie Then with Now, but there is one photographer whose work appears in both of the show's halves. W. Eugene Smith showed at LIGHT gallery (his work here is a photojournalistic picture of an anti-Red demonstration in 1969), and Jones later invited him to teach at the UA. Smith lasted only a few months in Tucson before he died, but Jones allows him an entire wall in the professors' section. On view are pictures from Smith's Nurse Midwife photo essay, a 1951 project documenting the labors of black nurse-midwives. Jones might have been inspired by Flax's bawling baby to select these fine black-and-white pieces, but perhaps--inadvertently--they also honor Jones, whose long career has helped midwife much of 20th-century photography.

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