Face forward: Uncapping the lens of vulnerability

Dave Woody, "Boxer, Austin TX (#2)," 2005, Archival digital print, 38 x 30 inches (image), Courtesy of the Artist.
Dave Woody, "Boxer, Austin TX (#2)," 2005, Archival digital print, 38 x 30 inches (image). Courtesy of the Artist.

I thought I knew what I was in for when I visited the University of Virginia Art Museum's exhibit, "The Figure in Photography, 1995-2005," curated by museum ace Andrea Douglas and art prof William Wylie. But instead of images examining the human body, what I found was a show highlighting work by eight photographers who, with one exception, explore context-specific, color portraiture.

Each artist dismantles the artificial veneer of formal portraits to disclose the vulnerability of the subjects in front of the lens. Several of the show's photographers work within particular environments, like Dave Woody, who shoots adolescent boxers before and after bouts. In "Boxer, Austin, TX (#2)," a boy stands in three-quarter view, as sweat beads on his slight but muscled body. The composition is stunning with reds ranging from carmine shorts to ruddy raw knuckles to a pink lower lip. But what holds the viewer's attention is the tenderness of the young fighter's expression as he looks wistfully to one side.

The three close-up portraits by Dawould Bey also showcase teenagers. Bey asked high school students, whom he shows seated at desks, to write paragraphs revealing something about themselves. These texts accompany the images, illuminating the inner life of the individuals. In Chan Chao's series, "Burma: Something Went Wrong," the photographer portrays young activists living in precarious exile following the military takeover of their country.

Two of the show's artists take a different tack, manipulating the circumstances under which they photograph their subjects. Sharon Cole's "Drunk Series" presents formal headshots of inebriated partygoers. Their eyes half-lidded, Cole's subjects can't muster the pretense that normally accompanies such formal sittings. Similarly, Bettina van Zwehl, takes pictures of women after they've slept in white shirts, looking slightly disheveled and confused, or as they hold their breath while lying on the floor in black shirts, creating an illusion of intention.

A small photograph by Vibeke Tandberg and another by Hellen van Meene seem like off-kilter afterthoughts compared to the attention the show lavishes on the work of the previous five photographers. Meanwhile, the work of by Jenny Gage, depicting anonymous bodies shot underwater, seems lifted from a different exhibit–- perhaps the one I'd originally imagined. Nevertheless, Gage's fluid photographs of sun-outlined silhouettes are among the most beautiful on display.

Though unexpected in scope and somewhat odd in image selection, "The Figure in Photography" nevertheless puts a new face on photographic portraiture.

"The Figure in Photography, 1995-2005" is on view through August 8 at the University of Virginia Art Museum, 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.

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