The METRO Show’s history as an antiques and design show means it includes rich finds for those who are interested in the history of photography. While not a photography-heavy art fair, this year’s show includes, beyond the occasional daguerreotype or tintype, several photography exhibits well worth the price of admission. I’m thinking especially of the works being shown by Hill Gallery and by Stephen Romano.
The Hill Gallery hung a series of images by Bill Rauhauser, a Kresge award-winning documentarian of mid-century Detroit. The images are compelling ruminations on class, capturing the daily lives of the proverbial average citizen during the Motor City’s heyday and beyond. Rauhauser’s work demonstrates that the city’s boom did not always, to borrow H.W.’s phrase, trickle down, but that does not make his photographs dark. Nor are they moody, or even melancholic (except in the way that nostalgia might prompt, for some viewers, an unquenchable yearning for the past). Instead, the images are incisive reminders of the quotidian, neither glamorous nor despairing; at times humorous, at other times poignant. Hill Gallery offers pigment printings of earlier silver gelatin portraits, and part of their allure is the fact that Rauhauser, now nearing 100 years old, continues to make photos. That the gallery representatives are lively and engaging will make you all the happier for having taken a look.
If the Hill Gallery’s images focus on “real life,” Stephen Romano’s seduce us with the supernatural. His exhibit of William Mortensen's A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft stopped most people in their tracks. I was no exception, and I returned to the series several times simply because I felt like I had to see it again. The images run from strangely inviting to bizarrely sado-masochistic, and the staging of each photograph, dating from 1925-1927, has the feel of melodramatic film stills. Indeed, at times I found myself smiling a bit at them because they seem so beyond absurd, if also wonderful.
From a woman whose shadow twists and contorts away from her as though an inner demon has been projected onto a canvas behind her, to a woman chained, nude, in a dungeon, looking into darkness in an expression somewhere between horror and pleasure, the sheer stagecraft of the photographs is remarkable. I don’t know the history of this particular work, but a useful essay on Mortensen can be found here.
If you must see only one thing at the show, go see this (I’m choosing to ignore the wonderful Traylor exhibit by Just Folk Gallery and the eclectic mix at American Primitive Gallery). Romano’s entire booth holds together beautifully, and the witch series is mirrored by vernacular “spirit photography” that is wonderful in its own right. If you’re going to go, though, I’d recommend you make tracks. Within only a couple of minutes of the VIP opening, the Mortensen series had a nice little blue dot next to it. I trust the series will hang a bit longer, but given the price point, it was not a casual collector who will be taking them home to his/her dungeon.
The METRO Show runs through January 26 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures, an art critic and Professor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York.