Portraits tell the story at Gallery 339 exhibit

Kelli Connell’s photograph "Carnival," on exhibit at Gallery 339.
Kelli Connell’s photograph "Carnival," on exhibit at Gallery 339.
Posted: June 01, 2012

When portrait photographers are storytellers, their images are often best seen in series such as an exhibition or book where the cumulative effect of the work builds a loose narrative.

Andrea Modica’s "Best Friends" and Kelli Connell’s "Double Life" at Gallery 339 (21st Street near Pine) are cases in point. These beautiful and compelling photographs create narratives about relationships and the nature of portrayals. The show is an inspired pairing.

Modica, an associate professor in the photography program at Drexel University, bought her first camera in high school with money she’d earned frying chicken at a fast-food restaurant. Today, the photographer is known for her empathetic portraits of families. Several of her photo series have been turned into books, such as the "Treadwell" and "Fountain" series, in which she maintained lengthy, close connections with two families (one in upstate New York and one in Colorado, respectively), documenting their lives, especially the kids’, in haunting scenes.

Modica loves platinum print photography, a 19th-century technique that is rare today, and her large-format Phillips camera, which she sets on a tripod for the long exposures she shoots under an old-fashioned photographer’s cloth. The black-and-white platinum/palladium contact prints made directly from the 8-by-10-inch negatives have an antique ambience with smoky, rich blacks and a high degree of detail.

The 23 Modica images on view here depict high-schoolers from art and prep schools in Italy, the Philadelphia area and Connecticut. The artist set out to shoot one student at a time, "but the ‘best friend’ kept showing up," she said. So she began photographing the best-friend pairings. What you see in works that date from 2003 to 2012 are sober-faced youth leaning into each other, holding hands, hugging or standing rigidly far apart.

Modica posed some of the images, but others were a collaboration with the subjects. "The best pictures are more or less equal, what they bring and what I bring as a photographer," she said.

Connell, a color photographer based in Chicago, makes works loosely based on vignettes from her own life. This show includes eight full-color chromogenic prints taken between 2002 and 2008, showing two young, tomboyish women doing ordinary things like talking, drinking beer, going to a carnival and arguing. These are highly composed and carefully scripted pictures, yet they do convey intimacy.

The women look so much alike, they could be twins. And the pictures are so perfectly composed, you might think there is something a little too perfect about them.

"Double Life," Connell’s first solo show with Gallery 339, is truthful like a biopic — facts with some fiction thrown in. The images are skillfully collaged from shots of a friend of the artist’s named Kiba Jacobson. Jacobson, Connell’s model since the series began in 2001, stands in for the photographer in these autobiographical works. But Connell told me she prefers a more open reading of the photos, one in which the figures represent more universal narratives about relationships.

Sometimes the work gets stereotyped as gay-themed. "The work has been in different types of shows, a truth/fiction show, gay-related. For me it’s not primarily about gay relationships, although I am in a relationship with a woman. I like it when straight guys can relate," she said.

Adding to the photos’ uncanny feel is the fact that Jacobson doesn’t seem to age — she’s the same chameleonlike presence throughout. Connell says she will continue working on the series with Jacobson, even though some galleries have questioned whether the photos would be salable when the model moves into middle age. "I grappled with that and let it go," Connell said. "I’m still really interested in the idea of the self over time. I started when I was in my upper 20s and will develop it in my 30s and 40s and [I] will keep working with Kiba."

The photos are shot primarily in Denton, Texas, a college town where Jacobson lives and where the bright Texas sun and small-town spaces create a bucolic setting for a tale of small-town love. Connell shoots with a medium format Pentax 67 camera on a tripod and collages the images in Photoshop.

Both of these photographers’ intimate works seem perfect material for books. Modica says a selection of the "Best Friends" photographs will be included in a book published by Nazraeli Press. Connell’s "Double Life" was recently published by Decode Books.

Martin McNamara, Gallery 339’s co-founder and director, said books have played a significant role in fine-art photography. "In both Kelli’s and Andrea’s work, there are great stand-alone images that tell an interesting story, but the ideas behind ‘Best Friends’ and ‘Double Life’ become clearer when one sees more than one picture."

"It’s like a city street — the buildings together add up to something richer and more complex when you put them together," he continued. n

Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

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