Personal frames

We’d been gently encouraged to explore the DuSable Museum’s show “Reflections”–to let ourselves be engaged by photographer and Chicago native Terrence A. Reese, widely and affectionately known as Tar. But it just wasn’t coming together for me. I shoved my notepad beneath my elbow and thought a little harder. A hand patted me on the shoulder.

“None of this is any good,” Tar admitted jokingly, taking a few steps back. I didn’t know what to say to that. He complained about his photographs’ focus, and then asked me to look with just my eyes. I saw grayscale homes and offices, clutter and treasure, and hidden in a mirror somewhere, the person that put it all there. I read but didn’t recognize names; tenors, rogue judges, and well-connected dentists. I didn’t recognize, but I saw, and I kept seeing.

I saw that the gallery had doubled its original seating to accommodate more arrivals. Tar was here to talk. “You are a direct reflection of your environment,” he told the audience. Personal space is arranged according to its owner’s identity. “When people look at it, they will find out who you are.” His camera often taught the subjects themselves, bringing into focus what had always been in front of them. The subjects were people that mattered–shapers of policies and communities located in their private homes.

As Tar abandoned the podium and approached the audience, I remembered how our emcee had corrected herself: We weren’t being “engaged,” we were being “messed with.” Tar’s talk, however, was as sobering as it was sidesplitting. Behind his hilarious anecdotes–walking in on a subject’s half-dressed family member, or a memorable run in with a stunningly precocious and historically-aware ten-year-old–were real, personal coming-of-age stories. Fresh from college, his early shoots enlightened and humbled him. “You see something different–you grow, you understand.” Of his 69 distinguished subjects, many were captured months or weeks before they passed away, right in the nick of time. “You go to these peoples’ homes and it’s the last photograph of dignity they’ll have,” he said. “We should know about all of these people…if you don’t know, it hurts you.”

“Reflections” messes with perspective–it asks viewers to see individuals first through the way they choose to see themselves. Tar hunted for an easy comparison. “Men walked around in suit and tie, saying ‘I AM a man.’ It’s about presentation.” The artist paused, and drew himself up, profile to the audience, to smooth his jacket’s lapels. Somewhere behind us, a camera shutter clicked once.