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RISD exhibit recaptures the meaning of photography

Photography triennial showcases diverse student works, pushes boundaries of conventional photos

Entering the ivy-covered brick mansion on Prospect Street, one is confronted by a collection of contrasts. Contemporary images in a modern medium are hung on the aging walls. A small, bright, experimental photograph of a slab of raw meat faces a large, dark inkjet of a traditional Chinese bathing scene. Black-and-white portraits share walls with colorful landscapes. Representations of seemingly trivial small-town suburban life mingle with commentary on broader themes like disease and modernization.

These incongruities define the Rhode Island School of Design’s photography triennial exhibition, which opened last week at the Woods Gerry House.

RISD maintains a long tradition of hosting exhibitions from various departments at the Woods Gerry gallery, giving the photography department a chance to showcase student work once every three years, said Eva Sutton, head of RISD’s department of photography.

The triennial examines the wide breadth of seemingly contradictory ways to define photography. A panel of professors reviewed student submissions from the entire photography department, which includes both the undergraduate and graduate programs, Sutton said. The panel also takes diversity of medium into account, mixing photos taken by traditional methods with those that incorporate lesser-known media, such as platinum palladium prints.

Youija Qu’s series, YAMAKAWA, covers the gallery’s left wall with massive inkjet photos of scenes from traditional Chinese culture. The sharp realism of these quotidian scenes contrasts with the print’s overly bright and vivid colors, adding a surreal effect to the pieces.

“We choose the best work that we think is the most provocative, interesting and stretches the boundaries of photography,” Sutton said.

Though no photo in the exhibition resembles another, common themes recur. One of these themes comes from students’ increasing probing of the definition of photography as a medium, which Sutton said is often achieved by retaking photos.

Left of the gallery’s entrance, Currie Broderick’s “Always Ready #2” and “Always Ready #18” jump out for their attempts at exploration. Initially indistinguishable and bathed in sepia tones, the works depict collaged photos of rubber tubes. But upon closer inspection, the photos are in fact pictures of collages, deceivingly flat instead of textured, challenging the limitations that conventionally define a flat plane.

“They’re looking at photography as a medium in the way painters look at paintings as a medium,” Sutton said.

In the back, an installation by Jackson Hallberg, a senior in the photography department, lies tucked in the corner and provides a sharp contrast with the traditional, one-dimensional photograph. His work features a glossy white bouquet of fake flowers in a vase with similarly glossy vessels littered around it. A projector faces the structures, beaming a video recording onto the objects until each is fully colored.

It was while snapping his first photos for a high school photography class that Hallberg changed his original plans of studying medicine at a liberal arts school. His growing interest in photography led him to Parsons The New School for Design, which he found too commercial, and he subsequently transferred to RISD.

“Photography, from the very beginning, has been art’s worst enemy,” Hallberg said, explaining that photography instantly and effortlessly accomplishes art’s original goal of depicting the most convincing reality possible. This idea sparked his interest in focusing on photography as a medium, rather than a means of representation.

His recent pieces center around ways to create alternative methods for the viewer to enter his work, he said, adding that he includes intentional mistakes — such as a finger on the lens — in his work to make clear that photography is an illusion and to highlight the “holes where the illusion falls through.”

His installation piece at the triennial was born out of ideas Hallberg explored in his previous works, in which he added color to his photos by physically spray painting the subjects before taking the picture, rather than digitally manipulating them post-shoot. This act reversed the roles between digital and physical manipulation in photography, he said.

“It’s provocative because we can have a really interesting discussion about whether it’s even photography,” Sutton said, adding that Hallberg’s installation was one of her favorite pieces in the triennial.

In another of the gallery’s multiple chambers, a little boy decked out in army uniform stares out of Tal Milon’s series of photographs. His little body juxtaposes with the assuredness of the fully grown man with which he stands.

Taken back home in Israel, the boy in the photos is Milon’s little brother, whom she has photographed since he was 10 years old, Milon said. She used to watch her brother playing with toy guns and was struck by how he was so childlike and mature at the same time, she added.

Milon graduated from art school in Israel before fulfilling her military service, she said. She knew she wanted to pursue the arts, but had no experience with photography.

“What I like about photography is that you can’t say what is real,” Milon said, explaining that photos take on the purposeful perspective of the person behind the camera rather than objective experiences. In her photos for the triennial, Milon seeks to capture her experience of the mixture of naivete and masculinity that she sees in her brother.

Through photography, “the moment is mine, the subject is mine, and the person that I photograph is mine. It’s when you want to stop time,” Milon said.

“We want to show people that photography is not one thing; it’s many things, and it’s even contradictory things,” Sutton said. “Everybody speaks photography, but we want to speak it with more meaning, intention and thoughtfulness.”


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