THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Rebecca Memoli
An interesting range of attendees, both young and old, came out to the opening of photographer Paul D’Amato’s exhibition to support an artist whose work touches people from a diverse range of communities.
“Don’t Forget to Move Your Feet” is sound advice that encourages us to stay light and allow things to happen. The subjects of D’Amato’s work traverse demographic and socioeconomic barriers in a skillful and sensitive manner.
The more than 40 photographs in the show are curated together rather than grouped by project, creating an opportunity to make new connections between them. Until you read the dates, early works are virtually indistinguishable from more recent ones. Girl Reaching Rose (1985) hangs directly next to Red Sunday (2005). In Girl Reaching Rose, a young girl hangs playfully from a green bannister and reaches towards a red rose.
Paul D’Amato, Red Sunday, 2005.
The youngster’s reach directs the viewer to the next photograph of four women all adorned in red suits with red hats standing together. Here too are roses, but they are pinned to the lapel of each woman. Green and red, young and old, both images complement each other and connect through the presence of flowers. Twenty years had passed between both photograph’s creation but both have an ageless quality to them.
Some of the photographs are taken from D’Amato’s book, Barrio that focuses on the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods in Chicago, the result of a 15-year photo project. The project began with D’Amato getting to know a gang called La Raza, but evolved into something much bigger and, to him, more interesting.
Eschewing the sensational, D’Amato builds an honest view of this community by focusing on the subtlety of individuals and families. For instance, in the photo Madonna Esme, the toughness and beauty of the two women in black with matching eyeliner is apparent even though they look away, casually waiting for something.
The photographs included in the show are not necessarily the famous images from this series. Instead the exhibition has purposefully included lesser-known works.
D’Amato’s photographs from the 90’s made in Portland, Maine, have a strikingly different feel. They are grittier and, in the show’s edit, appear to focus on younger subjects. Most are shot using a bright flash. The work from this time period most prominently displayed is the Rave series.
Rave, an installation of 14 mounted C-Prints, is large and, aside from those on the gallery’s back wall, they are the only photographs not reprinted in the last year. The promotional image for the exhibition, called Twiggy, comes from this series.
When I think of D’Amato’s work, I think of the careful attention he pays to natural light. The use of hard flash is such a departure for D’Amato that the focus on these particular photographs is a bit surprising.
The Rave series ties into the title and its emphasis on being loose and present in the moment, but it seems strange to put so much emphasis on a project that is not indicative of D’Amato’s style. The Rave photographs also have a different feeling of engagement with the subjects than his other work.
The dancers are caught in the moment, frozen by flash, not engaged with the photographer but the music. This is a contrast to other portraits of D’Amato’s where the natural light acts to warm the subject visually and there is a clear engagement reflecting a sense of trust between photographer and subject.
Paul D’Amato, Twiggy from the Rave series (date unknown).
On the back wall there is a grid of 11x14 C-Prints for sale as a fundraiser for BBF Family Services in North Lawndale. The exciting part of this charitable gesture is having the opportunity to own a C-Print handmade by the artist. One can see the unfinished quality of the work print, which feels very special and gives the viewer some insight into the artist’s work process.
The exhibition coincides with the release of D’Amato’s newest book, Here/Still/Now. The book’s photographs were all made on Chicago’s West Side. The volume is broken into three sections, each prefaced by a short essay. Each essay addresses not just the impact of D’Amato’s work, but also, in a poignant way, all that is problematic with a white photographer photographing in a black community. This honesty strikes me as sincere and serves to show D’Amato as an artist sensitive to all the complexities he is faced with in his art.
The experience of viewing the photographs is much different in book format. Holding a book allows the viewer to engage with the images in a more intimate way than with the larger framed photographs on the wall.
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago based artist and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and MFA in Photography from Columbia College. She currently works as a Teaching Artist with CPS Gallery 37 Advanced Arts Program.