Into Focus

courtesy of Mary Rafferty Photography

courtesy of Mary Rafferty Photography

“Multiple Exposures” achieves in the gallery what Jane Fulton Alt’s photography critique group accomplishes behind closed doors. An exhibition currently on display at the Bridgeport Art Center, “Multiple Exposures” features work from eleven of the group’s members, revealing and reconciling the sheer variety among Chicago photographers and their disparate subjects.

The title doesn’t just pun on the exhibition’s joint nature. The photographers contribute technical ingenuity, long-standing passions, and unique Chicagoland sensitivities. Alt’s trained eye brought the exhibit’s diverse content–luminous smoke clouds and swirling laundry machines, bold rectilinear architecture and liquidly pulsing kelp–into complementary and often political communication with each other.

Getting a Laundromat and a controlled wildfire to talk to one another is no mean feat. Yvette Meltzer’s “Revolutions” distorted the mundane, blurring the endless churning of nine washing machines from a chore you stare at dumbly into an installation to willingly spend minutes before. The glass doors become glossy playing-marbles; sartorial streaks from a bright wardrobe dissolve, run, blur, and glimmer.

“The Burn,” by Alt herself, is the coloristic and textural foil to “Revolutions.” Captured during annual fire setting in Lake Forest, Alt translates cloudily indistinct and hazily billowing images onto canvas, applying thin washes of beeswax to achieve an even more subdued, foggy, and rippling luminosity–rich in blues and greys. Alt makes the generally unfamiliar ethereal, Meltzer recasts the familiar as recognizably strange.

Alt’s group first came together seven years ago at the chance behest of several independent photographers. Over many monthly meetings, the circle drew together a diverse cadre. In assembling “Multiple Exposures,” the group’s first combined show, Alt remained excitedly undaunted by the sheer number of works to transport and mount, and by the thematic exigencies in arranging them. Alongside the BAC staff, Alt said they curated “organically,” keeping together “what looked good together.” The gallery was spacious enough to accommodate every piece they had initially brought; everything found its proper place.

The curatorial decision to group Chicago’s unemployed and its working-class with the double lives of roller derby players is a triumphant instance of the exhibit’s presentation. The loose triptych configuration of Mary Rafferty’s “Derby Life,” Art Fox’s “Facing the Homeless,” and Neil Spinner’s “I am the Other” is unpretentiously political. It not only unites the artists’ disparate content, bringing them into a visual correspondence, but also initiates a murmuring social commentary. “Derby Life” pantomimes “Facing the Homeless” and “I am the Other”–playing out in abbreviated microcosm the city-scale issues its partners suggest.

Why roller derby? “Why not?” Rafferty unblinkingly responds. Her female subjects are dressed for the day job, then derby. Between the paired photos, a CPD officer, a librarian, and an ER nurse each don the garishly punkish and animatedly kitschy livery of the Windy City Rollers. The adjacent shots are each bordered in black, set on white, and then nested in a larger, black frame. Yes: “Derby Life” is a pun. Rafferty’s execution expresses the duality of their lives. Stark black-and-white framing suggests a night-and-day transition. Postures are echoed from photo to photo. A tipped pen becomes a raised squirt gun; an arm acute at the elbow, tapping a baton against the opposite palm, melts effortlessly into a hip-akimbo gesture. These women have two faces–the one they show to the world, and the one that articulates the socially unsanctionable tendencies they can’t introduce to it.

Accordingly contextualized, “Facing the Homeless” and “I am the Other” rumblingly intimate. The derby-mentality is to the women what Fox’s figures of dignity, dejection, and deception are to the literally upright figures in “I am the Other.” Most of the subjects in “Facing the Homeless” sit cross-legged, hunched over signs with still-distinct lettering. Face squared, eyes hard, one elderly man firmly dismisses your gaze from behind his large, round glasses. Another man draws his lip and pulls his face into a wrinkled valley that seamlessly conflates mellowed distress, back-straightening knowingness, and a gentle contempt for the passerby who thinks he has the score. Fox often obtained his images without consent–rigging his camera inconspicuously–but he quickly learned he was only fooling himself. “They know damn well that I’m taking the photos,” he said.

Spinner approached his everymen as a photographer first. He vigorously positioned middle-class pedestrians, sampled from the outlying neighborhoods, against preselected urban scenes, shooting in black and white. He let them choose for themselves what posture felt natural, but the work is, nevertheless, contrived and unabashed portraiture. Set on glossy photo paper, arranged in a clean, four-print by five-print grid, “I am the Other” distinguishes itself from the rough rows, the ink-jet and craft-paper composition of “Facing the Homeless.” The differences breed as you stare. Tall and vertical versus oppressively horizontal; crystal-sharpness and low fidelity; subjects standing, subjects sitting. These binaries bind the two works to the dichotic language of “Derby Life,” merging the three series’ visual rhetoric into something unexpectedly confrontational.

courtesy of Mary Rafferty Photography

courtesy of Mary Rafferty Photography

Alt’s unflinching curating balanced the literal art as easily as a round-table discussion accommodates a spread of ideas and styles. The display deftly encourages cooperation between the individual series while still preserving and showcasing a single photographer’s technical talents and thematic interests. When the differences amongst the series were most prominently accentuated, “Multiple Exposures” burst into unquiet chatter–voicing surprisingly uneasy questions with an unexpected clarity.

Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. Through June 14. Free. (773)247-3000. bridgeportart.com.