The Little Prints

Shutter to think CMA's exhibit of photos taken with a toy camera actually works.

When the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibits the work of a photographer who uses a toy camera, the temptation is to wonder what the hell is going on. One of the premier arts institutions in the country is exhibiting twenty photos taken with a camera that sports a plastic shutter? Furthermore, that camera has a limited capacity for focus and sometimes distorts images, so textures are approximate, and distinctions between foreground and background are frequently fudged. On the surface, R. Clarke-Davis Photographs: In Between sounds like an art photographer's worst nightmare: "Give me a Polaroid if you must but, please, not the toy camera!"

One suspects that Chicago photographer Clarke-Davis must have a pretty good reason for putting up with this clunker of a camera, though, and it turns out that he does. Somehow, he cajoles a recalcitrant toy into doing his bidding, and it's never merely a technical stunt. There's a method in this apparent madness.

The technical limitations in these photographs might give the impression that Clarke-Davis's approach is slapdash and improvisatory. But be careful. The feeling of casualness is hard-won. Clarke-Davis is more concerned with focus, centering, and textural definition than he appears to be. That is, he finds these things when he wants to, and he neglects them when he wants to. Oppenheim and Duchamp and Warhol have shown us that since banality is a part of life and art embraces all of life, the commonplace ought to rub shoulders with high art. Thankfully, Clarke-Davis is not attempting to draw still more from that long-depleted soil. The fact that he uses a toy camera is actually a red herring, because, two-dollar equipment or no, he consciously shapes the material he records. There are some shots here that are as carefully composed and impeccably timed as a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph. So much for pigeonholing.

Remember the Twilight Zone episode in which an amnesiac Air Force pilot gets stranded in a deserted, Andy Hardy-like town? Combine Rod Serling's evocation of an abandoned Centerville, U.S.A. with Martin Scorsese's hellish vision of New York City in Taxi Driver, and you'll get something approaching Clarke-Davis's view of city life. In Between (could Clarke-Davis be referring to that curious moment when one is half awake but also half asleep?) is an odd and disturbing slice of Americana. Images that initially seem commonplace--a gloved hand holding a Styrofoam cup, a streetlamp, a storefront display--are given undue emphasis, to eerie effect. Clarke-Davis is reading us a poem but stressing unexpected words. As a result, we are kept continually off balance, and what begins as a prosaic bit of verse about living in America at the end of the millennium becomes a slightly wicked joke that threatens to blow up in our faces.

A lot of these photographs were taken in downtown Chicago, but it's a Chicago you're not likely to encounter if you go there for a convention next week. The gloved hand and Styrofoam cup appear in "Michigan and Monroe"; in this shot, and most of the others in In Between, Clarke-Davis is less interested in evoking a sense of place (the geographically specific titles notwithstanding) than he is in describing the effect that a particular place has on him. The Styrofoam cup is a bright white blur, and since the gloved hand in the foreground is practically indistinguishable from the dark pavement in the background, the cup appears to levitate, suspended in air because of its brilliant whiteness. Why the cup is being extended this way is left for the viewer to decide. If it's a panhandler's cup, why the emphasis on the brightness of the cup rather than on its contents or the identity of its owner?

In "Damen and North--Chicago, 1997," Clarke-Davis takes an ordinary streetlamp and the black outline of a skeletal structure behind it and transforms the scene into a disorienting expressionist nightmare. Clarke-Davis does to an ordinary streetlamp what Scorsese did to a plain yellow cab in Taxi Driver. He scrutinizes it and, after he's through, it looks like some urban beast rather than an inanimate object. Here, the black background allows the streetlamp to emerge in high relief (no problems of focus here), but since there are no other landmarks that place the image squarely in Chicago, the curving metal structure stands alone, and we are forced to direct our attention to it. There's no avoiding this dream.

Main Street is given another jolt in a photo of several pairs of shoes dangling from telephone wires. Clarke-Davis took this one in a small Indiana town. How did those shoes get up there and why? There is a ritual in some parts of the country that calls for young men who return from the Army to celebrate by tossing their boots onto telephone wires. Or maybe this is a childhood prank, like throwing rocks at streetlights. Perhaps the shoes up there symbolize unfriendly meetings of flesh with live electricity and the results of such encounters. Whatever the case, Clarke-Davis finds a good deal of diabolic humor and also absurdity in this image: All we see are a series of wires set against a slightly blurry early evening sky, and the shoes upset all that neat horizontality--little disorganized masses that interrupt straight lines. They don't belong up there, but they certainly make telephone wires more photogenic.

It's back to downtown Chicago and another excursion into the Twilight Zone in the photo "Madison and Wabash--Chicago, 1995." It looks as if Clarke-Davis took this one while standing on a bridge looking straight down. Pedestrians appear as grey blobs; a compass etched into the sidewalk, as seen from this angle, informs us that East is North and South is West. The message seems to be that life in the big city is so rough that sometimes you can't even trust a map to help you figure out where you are. There's also an odd sense of elongation in this photo; somehow, Clarke-Davis creates a stretched-out feeling whereby everything is not quite the right shape. It's not anything as extreme as what you'd experience in a funhouse hall of mirrors, but things are off by just that much, and it makes you uneasy.

There's nothing subtle, however, about "Pearson Near Rush--Chicago, 1995," a photograph of a table and chairs obviously taken at a cafe. The furniture is placed at the top of the frame, and the lower part of the frame is a demented ballet of shadows apparently cast by the same objects. How can such a simple arrangement cast all these shadows? Can nature defy logic this way? It can and does with Clarke-Davis's complicity.

The absolute showstopper of this exhibit is "Jackson and Wabash, Chicago, 1995." This is as carefully composed as any art photograph and proves the lie to the assumption that, because photographers like Clarke-Davis set their sights low, they favor unplanned compositions, as opposed to "high" art photographers who prefer a gradual accretion of relevant details. This photograph contrasts a standing man's silhouette with the hustle and bustle of a street scene. Above the man's head is a neon sign. It's not on at this time of day (lunch hour, perhaps), but the letters "ABC" are clearly visible. Clarke-Davis creates a collision between this symbol of childhood simplicity--which brings forth images of kindergartners learning the alphabet--and the grim figure who stands just beneath it. The man is sequestered from the rest of the people in this shot by a series of vertical lines. He's literally in his own box. And it's clear that he learned his ABCs ages ago; with his head bent over as if he's mulling some personal tragedy, he looks like Scorsese's combustible cabbie Travis Bickle. A car at the center of the photo serves as a theme, with the diagonal lines of its hood echoed throughout the shot. All this attention to motivic detail pays off: There's a striking inevitability about this tableau of urban alienation.

Clarke-Davis's two-dollar toy camera records a world that has little to do with the lives of the children who might have been expected to play with it. Instead, absurdity on Main Street is captured on a low budget. And, by cleverly calculating the limitations of his equipment, Clarke-Davis challenges the notion that primitive tools yield primitive results. That cheap camera, it turns out, really is the device best suited for telling his multifaceted tale.

R. Clarke-Davis Photographs: In Between, through March 17 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, 216-421-7340.

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