The tragic events of recent weeks have only served to illustrate how enmeshed we have become in the visual image. We cling to its intoxicating, hypnotic power hoping for answers, even as it challenges our power to understand, an aspect of the medium that applies as much to family photographs as to the more communal horror of that endlessly replayed plane penetrating the World Trade Center.
Unlike other art forms, from sculpture to painting to, oh, decoupage, photography is familiar, democratic and universal. While other media alienate with their esoteric jargon and experts and pedigrees, photography remains a uniquely accessible art form and quotidian vehicle of expression and communication.
"Photography is a medium that everyone identifies with -- whether one watches TV, treasures the family scrapbook or shoots snapshots of his or her children" says Corinne Adams, a photographer still beguiled by the complicated lure of the camera and president of Atlanta's most visible annual tribute to the genre, October's month-long Atlanta Celebrates Photography event.
While photography has the ability to deepen our understanding of the world, it also elicits the most superficial, knee-jerk responses, and therein lies its fascinating contradictions.
Atlanta Celebrates Photography is an event that acknowledges the power of the visual and heralds its importance in a city that has produced or nurtured dozens of noteworthy photographers. Now in its third year, Atlanta Celebrates Photography is nothing if not democratic, with venues from prosaic coffee shops to the city's loftier photography showcases like Fay Gold Gallery, which is participating with a Georgia Photographers show of color photography by local artists.
In 1999 Atlanta Celebrates Photography's roster of participating venues was a mere 40, but it has since grown to 100-plus this year. The group has also gained a big-money corporate sponsor, Kodak, which donated $10,000 to the coffer.
"I think these venues realize that if we all 'walk and talk' photography together, we can make a stronger statement about the art and excite -- and surprise -- people about the diversity of work within that familiar word 'photography,'" says Adams.
The event combines exhibitions, visiting artist lectures, educational seminars, portfolio reviews and studio tours. Alongside erudition will be the occasional glam event such as the Celebration Party and Silent Auction (Oct. 20 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) and the odd novelty like a demonstration of the world's largest instamatic, a five-foot-high, 235-pound whopper of a Polaroid camera (Oct. 19-25, location to be announced).
An especially savvy inclusion in this year's event is the number of shows and events that will take place at local stores and restaurants, like Decatur's Starbucks on the Square, the Peachtree Road furniture shop City Issue, the high-end Howell Mill Road furniture store Belvedere, Borders in Buckhead and the retail boutique Chicken Scratch, among others throughout the city. While attendance at Atlanta's gallery shows is notoriously spotty, this union of art and commerce acknowledges the strength of the retail imagination on the local scene. What better place to capture the errant eye than mid-latte?
Probably the most visible and sexy component of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, though, is a series of lectures organized by Atlanta Celebrates Photography Vice President Susan Todd-Raque, who calls it "the heart of our mission."
"Atlanta Celebrates Photography is about community involvement," says Todd-Raque, who compiled the list of speakers from a "wish list" provided by advisors from Atlanta's photography community. "What makes it all worthwhile is how it is truly about bringing everyone in the photographic community together to create a little something for everyone to learn and to network."
The selection of featured speakers expresses some of the range of photography's thematic and aesthetic possibilities, including photojournalists and fine art photographers like British artist Michael Kenna, whose recent black-and-white images of the Russian countryside and Easter Island appear at Jackson Fine Art in Buckhead. The lecture series will also feature photo theoreticians and conceptual photographers examining issues of gender, contemporary culture and race.
An unfortunate consequence of the World Trade Center attack for local audiences will be the delay of Brooklyn photographer Renee Cox's talk until Dec. 5. Cox raised a post-Sensation stink last February at the Brooklyn Museum when her provocative "Yo Mama's Last Supper," in which the artist appears as Jesus, provoked the ire of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Also on the lecture series schedule are ethereal portraitist Joyce Tenneson and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John Kaplan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Florida whose current work explores the ethnic minorities of China and Bolivia.
This oral salute to the consummate 20th century art form will also feature trendy twentysomething shutterbug Sue de Beer, who has tackled gendered cultural flotsam as diverse as Hello Kitty and video games. De Beer's exploration of the boy-beloved genre of slasher films and their unique visual assaults is currently on view in the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
Linking photographers who comment on contemporary culture and those who speak to the world of the past, the lecture series features everything from the low-slung pants slacker chic of Williamsburg artists to the old school photo-archeology of Michael Lesy. Lesy's 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip gives an alternative portrait of an often romanticized past and has since become a cult item. Unearthing a morbid 19th century frontier consciousness, Lesy's disturbing blend of images of emaciated horses, dead babies and newspaper clippings detailing suicides and murder sprees has become a classic of revisionist photographic history.
Another revisionist portrait of America's past emerges in the by-turns delightful and painful show Pictures Tell the Story by Memphis photographer Ernest C. Withers, currently on display at the High Museum of Art Folk Art and Photography Galleries. Withers brought a sense of energy (and a vision of some of the most sublime footwear on record) to images of the '50s music scene -- of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elvis Presley. He also brought a sense of urgency to his images of Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and a legion of forgotten, ordinary activists on one of America's unacknowledged war fronts, during the battle for civil rights in the '50s and '60s. Not only a documentarian of America's changing social landscape, Withers was also a witness to photography's evolution from novel to ubiquitous.
"As a kid I never saw Negroes in the paper," Withers recalled at a press preview of Pictures Tell the Story, and his life's work proved a response to that omission. Over the long arc of his career, Withers watched his lonely witnessing replaced with today's banks of bulb-eyed photojournalists and paparazzi and a current image-saturated topography of digital cameras, camcorders, disposable cameras and everyone clamoring for the best shot.
Offering a comforting sense of hopefulness despite hardship, Withers' portraits -- of grinning Little-Leaguers, a car full of smiling children on the way to their first day at a desegregated school, a fierce and sharp-dressed Aretha Franklin -- show the combined willfulness and spirit that make photography such a humbly human, emotional art form. The medium offers a memento mori of where human beings have passed, but also a looking glass into immortality and what we can become.
For information about Atlanta Celebrates Photography events and venues, visit www.acpinfo.org or call 404-885-9240.
See Arts Agenda for individual listings of events and shows.