Art Review: Domestic Diaries Exhibition at The Rockford Art Museum

Photography has always struggled to find it’s place in the fine art world. Fighting hard to be recognized as a new art media early in the 20th century, it was first denigrated as crutch for painters. Since the introduction of point-and-shoot film cameras, though, it has wrestled with its snapshot reputation. “Domestic Diaries: Photographic Viewpoints,” now on view at the Rockford Art Museum, is fascinating because it celebrates themes which are normally fodder for snapshots. But these are the photos that you and I wouldn’t think of taking.

Karen Irvine, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago, chose this exhibition, finding artists who’s photography has the feel and immediacy of snapshots. These are personal, sad, repetitive and/or distracted photos, though–just the issues that make theem fine art. By chronically the world of the home and installing them in a museum, she elevates the mundane and the repetitive nature of life and parenting to the stature they deserve.

Julie Blackmon, in her series “Domestic Vacations,” chronicles her family’s lives with a sense of surreal fantasy. After all, isn’t life surreal at times? One poignant photo, “PC,” shows three females. One is a thoughtful little girl dressed in white and standing in a dark room. The second female shows up nude in a painting hanging over the computer. The third woman might be the mother, climbing white stairs in high heels, and going away. Beautifully composed, it’s mystery is enhanced by the photo’s almost black and white palette.

Nicholas Nixon’s well-known series, “The Brown Sisters,” is displayed here in a grid. He has taken twelve photos of the four Brown sisters spanning 1975-2001, from their teenage years into middle age. In each photo the women are serious, loving, connected—and lined up in the same order. Time-lapse photography, of a sort.

Sally Mann’s work is both the most traditional and the most disturbing. Using an 8 x 10 view camera, she explores the look of early photography. The camera’s large format allows for extra-fine detail, and her traditional darkroom techniques remind us of an era that digital photography will soon make archaic. Her children are her models, and they pose with disturbingly mature elan. Controversy has revolved around her nude and sexualized portraits of her kids. Is this art, or is she taking advantage of them for her own fame?

Jen Davis bravely enters a series of self-portraits in this exhibition. A large woman, she found that these photos let her “see herself as the rest of the world sees her.” That sight is depressing and disturbing. In “Recesses” she crouches on a dangerously sagging couch with a withdrawn look on her face that belies the brilliant sun streaking across the floor from the beautiful day outside. In “Judgement”we see her feet teetering on the bathroom scales. She shows one touch of modern-day vanity, though, a small tattoo on her ankle.

Now well into the days of video, Vince Leo has created a poignant, sweet piece of his parents jitterbugging in their livingroom. The elderly couple know both each other and the dance steps well as they slowly and lovingly swing to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood.” We should all have a video of our parents dancing.

But today’s parents and grandparents may not be as connected as this couple. Ben Gest captures one Boomer couple taking a walk. Casually dressed, she seems to be fiddling with a complex headset and cell phone or recorder while he is reading the funnies as the page flaps in the breeze. Gest has recorded life getting in the way of life.

”Domestic Diaries: Photographic Viewpoints” is on display through October 8th at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 North Main Street, Rockford. Hours are Mon.-Sat. 10-5, Sun. Noon–5. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for senniors, children, students and members are free. The museum is free for everyone on Thursdays.

Susan Webb Tregay is an artist, teacher and author living in downtown Rockford.

From the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2006, issue

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