Past and Future Tense | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Past and Future Tense

Two shows of photography by local artists document the changing South

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David Simonton's "Vander, N.C., January" - DAVID SIMONTON
  • David Simonton
  • David Simonton's "Vander, N.C., January"

David Simonton moved to North Carolina on July 7, 1989—from Ellis Island. That is, the New Jersey photographer had just completed—along with many others—an intense 10 months of taking photographs for a project documenting the buildings and grounds where so many immigrants entered America. While working there, Simonton found his calling as a poet of the ignored or the ruined place, the lost or forgotten landscape. He prowled the compound, stalking the ghosts of its past and its shy present realities, waiting for the light to fall at its most lyrical slant and intensity. He studied the possible compositional angles until he achieved a formal purity. So precise became his sense of alignment with his subjects that, in his photographs, the grand abstract geometry of their parts shows clearly through their shabby surfaces. This was Simonton's first big project, and selecting and printing the images continued to involve him in his new home. While he had shown many of the images earlier, not until 1996 did he exhibit—to deserved acclaim—the complete Ellis Island portfolio.

But no matter how busy he may be choosing, printing, matting, framing, entering shows and incidentally working for a living, a photographer must be always making new images. "When I first got my driver's license, the first thing I did was go and take pictures in the next town!" Simonton says while putting the final touches on Night and Day, images from his next big body of work—photographs of North Carolina. Very shortly after his arrival in Raleigh, he began making forays on the weekends to scout out his new home state. And he fell in love with it. "New Jersey's OK," he says, "but it is nothing like this. It is just so comfortable here."

He first showed the pictures from these trips in Carrboro in 1997, but although he has exhibited from the growing series recently in Greensboro and at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, Simonton has not shown the recent work in this area until now. Now he has put up a wonderful small show in the second floor lobby of the Raleigh Municipal Building, as one of the City of Raleigh Arts Commission's ongoing series of exhibitions there. (Downstairs there is currently a handsome fiber art exhibition by Joan Walecka.) The hours are restrictive—8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Monday through Friday—but if you're in Raleigh with a spare half-hour at the right time, this would be a good place to spend it.

Simonton loves the little towns, the country roads, the dusty rail lines and crossroads garages. He looks with sympathy at the old downtowns, their pride worn thin and their storefronts empty. He especially likes places that indicate the passage of time, a change of use. He often goes around to the back, and finds the ludicrous assortment or homely dignity of things there, and often a humble beauty.

Always attracted to the built environment, in the country his eye focuses not on natural areas, or open fields, but on the accoutrements of farming—the sheds and barns and silos and grain bins. He doesn't photograph individuals, instead making portraits of the people by showing us their works, by daylight and in the darkness. Simonton carries his camera before him like a dowser carries a forked stick, clicking the shutter whenever the watercourse of human life makes its position meaningfully known by some arrangement of shape and light. He composes his pictures with an acute appreciation for the juxtaposition of shapes, lines, textures, shadows, reflections—but there is nothing cold or removed about the work. It is very humane.

The recipient of one of the North Carolina Arts Council's fellowships this year, Simonton spent his money on another medium format camera—and on time to use it. In 1997, he'd photographed in 50 places within day-trip distance of Raleigh; now he has worked in 223 towns and cities from one end of the state to the other. The NCAC fellowship allowed him the financial leeway to spend several days in a place, to explore more deeply, to wait for the light. And the larger camera lets him print bigger. Simonton is such a stickler for crisp, grainless prints that he refused to print his 35mm negatives big enough to have much impact. The images in this exhibition are all shot either with a 6-by-4.5 inch hand-held camera, or with a 6-by-6 inch camera mounted on a tripod. While still not large, they are big enough to see, and they are very richly printed, with tones that shimmer like the sound of brushes on cymbals, or like the air rising from a cypress swamp. Simonton may have come here as a Jersey boy, but with this fine body of work, he had made himself into a true Tar Heel.

Amanda Yaggy's "Laura at Local 506" - AMANDA YAGGY
Amanda Yaggy—a Durham native who recently returned to the area after a number of years in Boston and New York—has an utterly different approach to image-making from Simonton's, but one that is no less intriguing. Staying Up Late, at the Durham Arts Council, is her first Triangle exhibition. In this series of people photographed, with available light only, in clubs, cafes and party houses, she exploits grain and blur, making them work for her. These images have that 5 a.m. feel of blear and grit and drift—still having fun, but time's almost up. "I don't really stay up late any more," Yaggy says, "and neither do the people in the pictures. That's what made me know I had a finished body of work!"

Originally, Yaggy was interested in street photography, but, she says, "the more I took pictures and saw others' work, it got to where I felt—well, do I really want to compete with Garry Winogrand? I want to make things that only I can make."

So now Yaggy has turned her eye to suburban life. She isn't quite sure what she'll focus on—something about "people's stuff," and landscaping. "You know those mulch beds people put out in the middle of their yards?" she asks with a satirical gleam. While David Simonton records for us the old North Carolina at its moment of passing, Amanda Yaggy may show us our future.

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