Monday, November 22, 2010

In Review: Fell at BlackBlue

by Natalie Gallagher

On the quiet corner of Selby and Dale at St. Paul men's boutique BlackBlue, photographer Cameron Wittig stood beside a picture of the Hollywood sign and explained why he was averse to typical tourist photos.

"There are millions--billions--of photos of the Hollywood sign, and Niagara Falls, and so on. They look the same every time… so I added a fingerprint." Wittig gestured to the blur of pinkish flesh that was obscuring the left side of the print. "One in every million is a photo like that."

Wittig is entirely unpretentious about his work, which is refreshing especially considering his impressive background. (He has freelanced for Rolling Stone, New York Times Magazine, American Craft, and more.) He has the sort of unassuming character that invites conversation from anyone on any level, and as the small room circulated with old friends and interested visitors, Wittig seemed pleased at the warm reception. Much of the merchandise and furniture in BlackBlue had been cleared away to make room for the warm bodies, and there was a pleasantly crowded neighborhood vibe about the evening. I continued to plague Wittig with questions about his exhibit, pointing to a print of three shots of open blue sea that had been stacked on top of one another.

"Well, it's a classic rule, to work in threes…never put anything in the middle," Wittig explained, referring to the Rule of Thirds in photography and art which dictates that the picture be composed so that the subjects are located around one of the eye's intersection points (about two-thirds up from the image) instead of the center of the image.

Wittig seems determined to break all the classical rules, and he does it so successfully and so subtly that the viewer barely notices. Perhaps because the motivation doesn't come from a want to rebel, but more from a desire to disrupt the pattern. He is not riding against the waves of tried and true compositional statute simply for the sake of doing things differently, but rather out of a need to find the difference in a sea of sameness. Another example of this is a piece titled "Postcard"--a wide and scenic picture of the Denver skyline, with white mountain peaks and blue sky in the background. Indeed, it would make the perfect postcard--if Wittig hadn't chosen to display it upside-down.

Beyond the individual shots, the exhibit itself seemed to carefully break with convention. The first print was a black and white shot of a young man levitating above a river, and was the only picture to feature a person. Other photographs included close-up shots of water crashing into a shore (Lake Superior, I was later told), a picture of a window where the view was the brick wall of another building, and wood scenes with psychedelic lights and shadows. The final piece was of a solemn wooden door closing on a room, with just a crack of light peeking from the floor.

Each photograph seemed like a piece from a very different series; viewing them side-by-side should have been distracting, but oddly, the contrasting subjects lent themselves favorably to Wittig's overarching goal of disturbing the paradigm. Besides that, the photograph collectively shared the ability to polarize a particular moment in time, forcing the viewer into the silence of the instant in which the picture was taken. In the same way that Wittig searches for uniqueness in the world through his lens, he challenges viewers to find it for themselves. Shots like the ones of the Lake Superior waters breaking into dirt and rocks are at once familiar and strange, like fragments of a blurry memory, and even as the viewer tries to place them, their significance can shift from violent to precious and back again.

The title of the exhibit is Fell, which, Wittig noted, can mean a lot of different things: to fall down, to fell a tree, etc. In each photograph, there seems to be a pause somewhere--a point of solitude where the viewer forgets what they are actually looking at, in the same way that a sudden fall or a stricken tree can affect the scene. Appropriate, I thought. Another break in the pattern.

Fell will be on display at BlackBlue throughout December. For more info, visit the website here. For more of Cameron Wittig's work, visit his online portfolio here.

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