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Pulse of the City 

Urban spaces are all about the people who create and inhabit them.

"Earl," by Eric Rippert, photograph.
  • "Earl," by Eric Rippert, photograph.
Landscape photography doesn't have to concern itself with people. Cityscapes, on the other hand, can't avoid them. Even when there's not a single person in sight, the human element is never completely absent from an urban scene.

This is certainly true in the Cleveland Artists Foundation's revealing exhibit The Contemporary City: Northeast Ohio Photographers View Urban Spaces. Curator Michael Loderstedt, a professor of art at Kent State University, sees cityscapes as "richly textured social organisms much like ourselves." His aim is to reveal the urban environment itself, not the humans who populate it. "This is not The Family of Man," he says, referring to the now-classic 1955 Museum of Modern Art photographic exhibit of life's commonalities (birth, death, love) shared around the world.

Some of this photographic record of urban life comes obliquely presented, implied in the detritus left behind; some of it is staged. But the human family is, in fact, celebrated in quirky and whimsical ways by the nine photographers in this show.

Eric Rippert, for example, has created mysterious film-noir setups inhabited by characters with old-fashioned names like Earl and Ruth. In these scenes, it looks as if something has just happened or something is about to happen. In "Ruth," we see the silhouette of a woman on a pebbly Lake Erie beach, the city off in the distance. Did someone drown? Is she about to kill herself?

"Earl" sets a similar scene, this time with the silhouette of a man. Again, a frisson of menace hangs in the air. But it's all fake. Earl and Ruth are toy figures, posed by Rippert. He used a large-format camera to capture the whole landscape, making the "people" loom large in the foreground. He shoots dolls, he jokes, because "toy people are easier to work with" than the real thing. More to the point, he says, he is interested in the problem of truth and lies in photographs. His shots, many taken in his Collinwood neighborhood, look real enough that viewers assume they're seeing fact, when they're not.

Unlike Rippert, Karen St. John-Vincent uses real people in her compelling photos. She poses them in mini-dramas at sites around Cleveland that are meaningful to her. For example, the alley she uses in "After Soir Bleu" was where a bird once fell dead from the sky and landed at her feet as she took a familiar shortcut. The scene she shot there evokes a sense of life's mystery: A man, observed by a distant group, pushes a shopping cart down the alley while an androgynous, indifferent figure dressed in a cream-colored suit leans against the wall and ignores him. It's not clear why any of these characters are there, but a sense of futility and despair -- as evidenced by their disconnected lives -- permeates the picture.

Some of the photographs on display bring out life's lighter moments. Bridget Commisso, for example, uses a fishbowl lens for comic effect. A photojournalist, she snaps pictures of Northeast Ohio lawn ornaments -- kissing figures, an angel, Elvis, flamingos -- from the ground up. The ornaments are the stars of this world, filling their circular frames. This shift in perspective is good for a smile.

Arnold Tunstall's pictures of New York and Las Vegas play with the idea of cities as iconographic. He makes his point with three photos of cities that we assume to be New York, since the skyline is familiar. Then the viewer notices palm trees in the foreground of one and thinks, "Palm trees in New York City? Wait a minute!" A check of the picture's caption reveals that the famous outline made us jump to the wrong conclusion; it's really a shot of a Vegas casino built to look like the Big Apple silhouette.

The gritty side of city life is implied in Eric Freeman's work. One Ohio scene, taken at an outside shelter, shows a filthy mattress. Beside it, a piling serves as a table, with a (drug?) spoon still resting on the top. It looks staged, but Freeman insists he doesn't alter pictures. Not all he sees is ugly, though. Sometimes he catches stunningly beautiful views of lichen-covered walls or concrete bridge supports. One untitled photo taken in Cleveland captures the beauty of light, glowing and golden under an overpass as reflecting patches of a rain slick lighten the ground beneath it.

Other noteworthy photographs include Andrew Borowiec's pictures of houses in once-thriving areas now gone to seed. A striking example is seen in "Mobile, Alabama," where a portico on a dilapidated mansion awaits the return of an urban Scarlett O'Hara. He caught a delightfully ironic juxtaposition of faith and practicality in a Lowell, Massachusetts neighborhood. A window sports a "Warning: Security Dog" sign; the front walk has a statue of the Virgin Mary almost blocking the entrance. The residents seem doubly guarded with both secular and holy security.

The most successful and imaginative photographs in this exhibit demonstrate that it's impossible -- and in the end, not even desirable -- to separate urban landscapes from the people who create them and live in them. The best of these photos of bridges, yard ornaments, lakesides, and run-down neighborhoods echo Hamlet's observation that "all the world's a stage" dramatically set before us -- if only we can see it.

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