Of the Ordinary

Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

February 9 – April 15, 2012

By Leigh Van Duzer

Photography and archives have long been intertwined, especially in evidentiary images that document historic events, scientific research, and surveillance. The current exhibition at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center focuses on the archive as both a starting point and a finished work for artists. Of the Ordinary refers to the commonplace archives from which each artist in the show takes or makes images to transform meaning. Many of the artists cull images from found collections and alter them by cropping or re-contextualizing. These collections vary from local newspapers to security camera footage to donated personal photographs. Other artists in Of the Ordinary generate collections with their own cameras while also compiling a catalog of information that includes found imagery or documents.


In Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work, access to the Belfast Exposed Archive provides the artists with a dense library of photographs related to the Troubles, the armed conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Photojournalists and amateurs donated images to the archive, documenting everything from police violence to children playing in the street. Broomberg and Chanarin have cropped the black and white photographs into small circles, hiding the rest of the image under a white, eight-by-ten inch canvas. The resulting pieces confirm the photographic truism that the frame limits what can and cannot be seen, the limitation made not only by the original photographer but by Broomberg and Chanarin. By severely truncating the original images, the meaning of this archive becomes quite subjective.


The true story of the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate forms the narrative in Christian Patterson’s project Redheaded Peckerwood. Patterson deftly describes the story in images both found and original without directly illustrating the tale: a shotgun shell, a dark road leading to nowhere and a crude figurative drawing. Save for a magazine article presented in a nearby case, the viewer must piece these visual clues together to make sense of the narrative. Patterson’s project is rooted in fact but transformed by interpretation, creating his own archive of information describing the sequence of events.


Jason Lazarus creates an archive by asking Philadelphians to donate photographs too painful to keep any longer. Personal history and emotion are the basis of his collection, and the anonymous nature of the images creates a sense of mystery- who are the subjects? What are the stories? There is a large framed photograph that the donor allowed to be exhibited only if it were displayed backside up so that the image could not be seen. The archive that Lazarus creates here is a document of personal experience that obscures individual stories, allowing universal emotions to surface.


For many of the projects in Of the Ordinary, the artists’ source materials and final pieces are both archives of sorts, though neither mirrors the other in meaning. By stripping away background information and allowing the viewer only a partial understanding of their significnce, the archives become subjective. In this way the exhibition moves back and forth between archive as fact and archive as fiction.


Leigh Van Duzer is a Philadelphia-based artist whose work has been shown internationally, including galleries in Philadelphia, New York, and France. Leigh is the recipient of the Daisy Soros Prize, a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, and received her MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010.