The many faces and uses of photography

Sep. 26, 2013 @ 03:50 PM

“Inspired by the Lens,” Frank Gallery, 109 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, through Oct. 6.

“Titus Brooks Heagins:  Witness:  A Retrospective,” N.C. Central University Art Museum,
through Oct. 4.


Photography is everywhere and because our phones put a camera in our hands, we may not understand its relationship to fine art. It happened in the middle of the 20th century; the art world began to include photography as an equal partner in the hierarchy of fine art.  
Currently in the Triangle and through the rest of the year, photography is in focus. Part of this emphasis has been organized by the Frank Gallery with a consortium of local galleries and museums where you can see exhibitions, where experts will discuss the medium and others will teach workshops on the subject.  The show at the Frank includes artists who are conventional photographers and those who use it in some way to create paintings and sculptures.
While the Frank has opened its show to every facet of photography within the context of art, at North Carolina Central University’s Art Museum the solo retrospective of photographer Titus Brooks Heagins is the standard exhibition for an extraordinary artist whose portraits are records of souls. Not part of the consortium, Heagins’ show is certainly related. In his introductory statement of the exhibition catalogue, Heagins, who is African-American, wrote about his focus on the “common American, regardless of race, sexual orientation or gender.” His photographs bear witness to those who are overlooked or unseen in their communities, Heagins writes.
Amanda Hughes, director of external affairs at the Ackland Museum of Art and co-curator of the Frank show, walked me through beginning with traditional photography -- what the artists see through the lens and how they show it to us. A perfect example is Jeff Whetstone’s “Morning on King’s Creek” where a car floats upside down in murky water; it is art-inspired photojournalism. 
We next stopped in front of Sandy Milroy’s painting “In the Studio.” Using torn and cut-up old photographs from a colleague she has created a self-portrait working through the technique of collage and painting. On another wall is Peg Bachenheimer’s traditional abstract painting. Beside it are two small photographs she used as aide-memoire. Hughes pointed out Peter Filene’s double exposure of a seated woman silhouetted against a backdrop where a shadowy figure stands in front of Giacometti’s “Walking Man.” We stopped to look at an installation which merges the poetry of Lou Lipsitz, the jewelry of Mirinda Kossoff, the handmade table of Jim Oleson and the enhanced photographs of Barbara Tyroler and Jean Le Cluyse. 
With Lipsitz’s poem mounted on the wall under a Kossoff piece over the Oleson table, Tyroler and Le Cluyse hang their two images as pendants. In one, a figure hurtles through swirls of water, and in the other we see the legs of a swimmer; both are covered in beautiful pen and ink designs. 
The exhibition has many layers besides the obvious: photography, painting and sculpture enrich and enhance each other. One layer is this is a show about process, that is, the process of turning the photography medium into the means by which various art techniques depend. Another one is this show heralds a new era of cooperation and interrelationship between our museums, our commercial galleries and our academic institutions. Each factor speaks to a new spirit of support and partnership which can only add strength to the entire art community.
At N.C. Central, Heagins and museum director Kenneth Rodgers chose 50 photographs.   It was not easy, said Rodgers, because Heagins has at least 5,000 images in his archives.  The artist has traveled extensively and has produced series upon series of people from all over the world. In the show are examples from Haiti a few weeks before the earthquake, his “T-Girls” series, Durham, Rorschach portraits and a few others which both men thought too important to be left out.
The children’s pictures are my favorite because they are so honest. There is “Fabienne” from Haiti who has tucked her hand under her cheek in a pensive pose, and there is “Devonte.” Linda Dougherty, the N.C. Museum of Art’s chief curator and director of contemporary art, wrote in her catalogue essay that Devonte Hayes is a “little boy with an adult demeanor and expression.” Heagins’ portraits from the “T-Girls” series show us these men/women in their iconic poses. As viewers we look at them as they look at us; Heagins offers no criticism. “Kaskad” is not so much a picture of the man, but the beauty of a Haitian waterfall. The model, standing on a rock projection, has taken a Christ-like stance with the water crashing down around him. 
East Durham has been a major focus for Heagins for a number of years. In her catalogue entry, Daugherty wrote that Heagins was drawn to this area because it was a racially diverse community where people managed to peacefully coexist. He had also described the area as one with a negative reputation and an “endless supply of the dispossessed.” The portraits in this segment include single figures, older couples and racially diverse ones. He also introduces his Rorschach series here.  These men and women, black and white, look at us without any pretense. Heagins suggests these photographs “serve as inkblots inviting complex interpretation.” We the viewers are being tested. 
The artist has been compared to Diane Arbus in his obvious relationship with his sitters.  He respects them and they know it, and so they turn their faces to his camera because they trust him.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.