SPACE exhibit packs a photographic punch

The latest exhibition at the SPACE gallery features work by a variety of photographers. (credit: Sarah  Moss-Horwitz/) The latest exhibition at the SPACE gallery features work by a variety of photographers. (credit: Sarah Moss-Horwitz/) Carnegie Mellon adjunct professor of history Leo Hsu's photo series _Free to the People_ focuses on the library as a unique space. (credit: Sarah  Moss-Horwitz/) Carnegie Mellon adjunct professor of history Leo Hsu's photo series _Free to the People_ focuses on the library as a unique space. (credit: Sarah Moss-Horwitz/)

Photography occupies a realm both outside and within the confines of the contemporary art world. In this digital age, we encounter photography more than any other art medium. The vivid “realness” of a digital image, however, can create difficulties in distinguishing what a photograph is and what it isn’t.

In the SPACE gallery in downtown Pittsburgh, a photography exhibition curated by Carnegie Mellon alumna Jen Saffron (CFA ’91) explores the limits and abilities of photography through installation, which uses site-specific pieces to transform the meaning of the space. Featuring the work of five mid-career photographic artists, the exhibit explores how photography opens both figurative and literal lenses to new perspectives.

In conceiving the exhibition, Saffron began with an interest in exploring what constitutes a photograph. “The trick of photography is that it can take the three-dimensional and display it as two-dimensional, but it flattens out the original in the process. What’s more, photographs are therefore always a representative of the past, not the present.”

Although it is conceptually driven, Saffron emphasizes that this show is not a contemporary art show but rather a photography show — an important distinction, given the long history of photography as a medium with its own rules and boundaries separate from the art world.

The photographers involved are Nancy Andrews, Dennis Marsico, Annie O’Neill, Barbara Weissberger, and Carnegie Mellon adjunct professor of history Leo Hsu.

Unlike many SPACE shows, says Saffron, this exhibition is not about showcasing contemporary emerging artists with novel ideas, but rather a platform for established, mid-career professionals who have a deep knowledge of the practice and experience. Between the five of them, they have a profound understanding of photography as an interdisciplinary medium.

Hsu’s work in the show, a series titled Free to the People, focuses on the subject of the library, exploring it as a unique, semi-public space. His work for the project began in 2010, when the “library was in crisis,” and branches all around the nation were closing down and reducing hours due to overwhelming budget cuts.

Hsu’s strong personal connection to libraries motivated him to explore the space of the library conceptually through photographs. “I have always really loved and appreciated public libraries, and Pittsburgh itself has a long history of libraries with the Carnegie Library.” Hsu views libraries as a special space in an otherwise commercialized culture — one of the only places meant to be simply inhabited by all with no motivation to buy or sell.

Hsu’s photographs genuinely capture people at ease in the library and feature a range of subjects diverse in age, race, and expression. By taking an installation approach, Hsu’s photographs are given content that reflect his social ideas of the importance of libraries, and recreate the feeling of a library within the gallery environment. His work occupies a comfortable nook and takes a literal approach to recreating a library environment, highlighting a table, chairs, bookshelf, and couch that could have been straight out of Hunt Library.

The works of the four other photographers take a variety of different approaches. A travel photographer for The New York Times, Travel, and Leisure, Marsico’s project titled Age Specific focuses on exploring the issues confronting the 1960s generation of youth-centric ideology over 50 years later by juxtaposing portraits of a middle-aged woman with those of an infant.

O’Neill, a veteran photojournalist for LIFE magazine and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Andrews, an award-winning journalist and renowned former staff photographer at the White House, also have work in the show.

A photographic artist with a contemporary art background, Weissberger’s work approaches photography in an unusual way, creating digital photographic collages that distort real objects, challenging our ideas of perspective with images that generate organic abstractions out of simple subject matter.

Taken as a whole, the exhibition demonstrates that in spite of the overwhelming role photographs now play in a world where everyone has a smartphone and a camera, photography can still be a powerful tool when pushed to its limits. The idea that a photograph can only be a record of the past challenges our obsession with self-documentary; taking an installation approach shows all the aspects that are lost in the process of taking a photograph. Additionally, the role of the fourth dimension, time, in understanding the meaning of a static image is also addressed as the artists attempt to push the media.

The exhibition is a collaborative effort mounted by SPACE gallery in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Behind the Scenes will be showing through Jan. 26.