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Commitment-phobia

Though "Committed to the Image" is itself noncommittal in its approach to contemporary black photography, it includes some strikingly beautiful pictures.

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The poster for Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers is a challenging picture by Delphine A. Fawundu called Patiently Waiting. It depicts a naked woman, seen from the back, who sits on the side of a tub in an old bathroom. She is looking to one side and has clasped her hands to her shoulders, as if to lock up her front. Her glistening back is womanly and very black, an eye-popping black that dominates and transcends her dingy white surroundings. Her curvilinear form claims -- as if by right -- the stately inheritance of the marbled white nudes of Western art. (Some will be reminded of Ingres, who traced the classical outline of paradise in a woman's back.) But for what, you may ask, is this woman "patiently waiting"? For more than just a lover, certainly. Her back is both an invitation and a closed door. She awaits whoever can unlock the potential in her form -- and release that amplitude, that berry-rich dream of blackness.

Patiently Waiting is one of the more startling works in "Committed to the Image," a survey that's rather tame by the standards of contemporary art. There are few, if any, pictures that appear particularly angry, shocking, or iconoclastic. The show is a collaboration among four people -- Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith, Orville Robertson, and Barbara Head Millstein -- that covers the field instead of presenting one strong point of view. It places the pictures into small thematic groupings, such as "beauty," "justice," "performance," "religion," "portraits." It includes 94 photographers, young, old, and middle-aged, working in a wide variety of styles and traditions. With such a large, varied crowd of artists and themes, it seems absurd to draw any all-encompassing generalizations about black art. "Black" just contains too many colors.

But the show did leave me with some smaller observations. Black photographers are often resolutely optimistic. It almost seems as if many of these photographers do not have the time or the luxury to indulge in fashionable despair or arty aesthetics -- not while the poor are making do or transcending their circumstances. There can be something formal about a photographic document, like a sermon in Martin Luther King's church. In Jim Collier's Living Room (One-Room Shack) -- Southern U.S.A., the harsh details of life in the shack are not avoided, but neither are they emphasized. The bleaching bright light picks out three children -- and their three very different poses are full of life and cockiness. In the portraits, the photographers rarely strip away the façade in order to reveal an anxious inner life. Instead, they celebrate strength. The sugar-cane worker in Chandra McCormick's portrait Mark Gale is the sort of strong, handsome -- even beautiful -- working-class hero that once dazzled the thirties.

The strongest photographs in the show have a mysterious, iconic power that seems to unite a difficult present and a visionary future. In some cases, the "black-and-whiteness" of black-and-white photography actually serves as a subtle purveyor of meaning. In Budd Williams's Snow Dancer, which is full of tonal messages, a shadowy black man in a baseball cap ploddingly shovels snow under the billboard image of a polished black dancer, who is wearing a top hat and carries a walking stick. The white snow the worker clears away leaves behind a rough gash of black. LeRoy W. Henderson Jr.'s Untitled shows a slender, very black-skinned girl in a white and lacy ballerina's dress. Like the woman in Patiently Waiting, she is looking dreamily outside the frame. Behind her is a carefully composed classical frieze, which depicts figures boisterously singing and dancing. Her own white-stockinged legs, illuminated by the light, are in a balletic pose; her hands are folded across her waist in an almost Buddhist way. (Lest the picture appear too seamless, one of the dancing boys in the frieze has lost a leg.) The girl seems delicately poised between black and white, art and reality, past and present, youth and eternity, bedlam and meditation.

Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art; through 4/29.


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