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Review: Photographers Guy Mendes at {Poem 88}, Tommy Nease at Get This!

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Guy Mendes' "Ralph Eugene Meatyard" (1970)

A pair of exhibitions on the Westside offer an illuminating comparison between two photographers who initially seem as different as could be. Both shows will close on Saturday, December 1.

“Phantasm,” at Get This! Gallery, features the haunting pictures of Tommy Nease, a young Chicago-based photographer whose images are raw and experimental, his compositions evocative of the supernatural. In contrast is “Guy Mendes 40/40” at {Poem 88}, a retrospective of ebullient and tender portraits of friends and acquaintances from the past 40 years, characterized by Mendes’ crisp treatment of light and refined technique. Despite differences in subject matter, style, age and technique, both photographers display a keen sensitivity to the medium and a self-possessed sense of style.

Nease’s photographs seem like stills from a lost horror movie. A fascination with totemic objects and imagery permeates the works; the mystical properties of these objects are emphasized through their repetition in “Phantasm.” A crystal floats in mid-air over an outstretched palm, the shape mimicked by a glowing obelisk offset by trees. Circles are given spiritual import — be it a ring of rocks, a hollow in the earth or a stained glass dome, the circle is a locus of power. Animal bones and feathers, a common prop in Nease’s photographs, are given a supernatural quality through his use of translucent and dramatic light.

An untitled photo from the "Phantasm" series by Tommy Nease.

By manipulating film, both within the camera and in the darkroom, Nease is able to produce eerie scenes and ghostly images. A barely perceptible female silhouette is superimposed as a spectral shadow against a stained glass dome. A person appears to be levitating in the trees. An emphasis on the malleability of film itself adds to the effect. Scratches and blemishes are visible in many of the photographs. In some, the scratches and flecks become part of the scene, hanging in the air like the first snow of winter; in others the marks remain on the surface, emphasizing the photograph as object.

Nease’s interest in occult subject matter and willingness to experiment with the properties of film give his work a youthful quality. This youthfulness, however, is not to be mistaken for immaturity. His exploration of film’s spectral effects reveals him to be a determined, disciplined photographer; his dedication to physical film and its possibilities shows him to be an old soul, interested in photography’s past rather than a digital future.

“Guy Mendes 40/40” reflects on the Kentucky photographer’s 40-year-career with roughly the same number of portraits. (The traveling show, curated by Phillip March Jones, dips slightly under 40 at {Poem 88}.) Mendes made his living as a producer for Kentucky Educational Television, which enabled him to explore photography without being financially reliant upon it. By chance he met author Wendell Berry and photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who would become his friends and mentors. This exhibition shows Mendes’ style evolving from early experimentation with film effects to using his subjects’ environments and belongings to accentuate their personalities.

Mendes' "Wendell Berry" (2003)

The photographs are partnered with texts describing Mendes’ relationship to the subject and the conditions that led to the image. “Juliette Lee Moore” (1968), the earliest picture in the show, reveals Mendes’ enchantment at the time with tricks of light. In this photo, droplets from a waterfall become candlelit paper lanterns, giving the image a magical glow. The text describes their relationship as “first love turned to first lost,” revealing the scene to capture more than a lovely moment; it represents the height of Mendes’ love for his first wife. A portrait of Meatyard from 1970 uses multiple exposures to duplicate the man, depicting him reaching out to touch his double. The statement accompanying the work discloses that it was inspired by Meatyard’s own use of experimental techniques such as multiple and slow exposures.

In the works that follow, Mendes’ interest in these effects wanes in favor of understated twists in composition that will become a defining characteristic of his style. He is a master at creating subtle relations between his subjects and the scenery. A portrait of writer James Still from 1999 captures him in mid-sentence, his right arm outstretched in a gesture. A tree stands in line with his right hand, its lean corresponding with the tilt of Still’s straw hat, its trunk accentuating Still’s own sturdiness. A 2003 portrait of Berry shows him while telling a story, his hands, raised to illustrate a point, seeming to caress a copse at the edge of a clearing. It appears to be late fall, the trees mostly bereft of leaves. A few at the crest of the trees allude to the faint wisps of hair atop Berry’s head, unifying the composition and referencing the impending winter, both as change in season and the final stage of a man’s life.

Mendes’ subjects look almost impossibly natural, an effect he achieves by showing them in their natural environments, often surrounded by their passions. “Minnie Lincks Black” (1988) depicts the octogenarian surrounded by her numerous dolls and figures made with gourds, seeming relaxed despite the hot day and long exposure time. Mendes’ portrait of musicians Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee shows Moore relaxed, guitar at his feet, while Sollee remarkably has his cello on his shoulder like a violin, his bow poised to play. Both men look to something at the right of the photographer with bemused expressions, perhaps acknowledging a fan or making a joke for a fourth party. They stand in an otherwise empty ballroom yet command the scene like the virtuosos they are.

The Mendes show chronicles the evolution of a skilled photographer who discovered a love for the medium early and has cultivated a fine talent for portraiture. Nease’s “Phantasm” displays a young photographer’s deep curiosity about effects and technique and dedication to style that will surely serve him throughout his career. Reflecting on the full career of one, we can also see the exciting potential of the other.

Tommy Nease will give an artist’s talk at noon Saturday, December 1. 

On our home page: An untitled photo by Tommy Nease.

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