An Eye For The Odd
Marna C. Graham
A braying donkey, teeth bared in a classic hee-haw, is one of the leading images in the collection of Bill Dane's recent photographs, currently on exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery. This picture trumpets Dane's attitude toward his subject matter, which seems to be, "Hey look—isn't this weird?" His images attempt to reveal the bizarre lurking underneath a veneer of normalcy.
Coming from a background in painting, Dane turned to photography in the early seventies. He began by sending postcards to people on a select mailing list. Those were formally composed, fondly seen images, stamped with postmarks, and with handwritten messages on the back. Many of the images closely resembled those by Lee Friedlander. Dane's current work is more loosely constructed than the postcards.
He produces blackly humorous, seemingly arbitrary views that are consistent with the snapshot esthetic, but the images are calmer than Garry Winogrand's and less probing than Robert Frank's.
Photographs in the current exhibit, all produced in 1981 and 1982, depict California, with a focus on the glitz and clutter of West Coast culture. The images feature people on display and arrangements of objects—with an emphasis on the absurd, the unexpected. The results are often jarring. Dane goes for shock value, as in his still life of a disemboweled fox on the roadside. There are several pictures of naked women in strange contortions. The most startling of these shows a bare performer standing on her head, on the runway of a seedy theater. Five men leer from the audience, three holding cameras poised. Glittery high-heeled shoes and a G-string are strewn around the upended lady.
Included In this exhibit are some of Dane's first color images, produced with the aid of his 1962 Guggenheim fellow-ship. The transition from black and white to color is often troublesome for photographers, but Dane has accomplished it smoothly. He uses color to capture detail: in Knott's Berry Farm, the seams show on the acid-hued, molded plastic ornaments dusted with fake snow, which- decorate a Christmas tree. In another image, a brightly colored gemstone collection—highly polished little chips of rock affixed to flocked cardboard—is made laughable.
Dane employs several Brechtian devices to shake our acceptance of a photograph and to add to the movement and immediacy of the work. The printing is so harsh and bleary in many pictures that we can hardly penetrate the image. A few are out of focus. Several frames include the hot spot of the flash used to make the photograph: Los Angeles, showing a hokey cardboard model ol the harbor in a display case, is an example. The image includes reflected glare from the light trained on the display and smear patterns on the glass from public nose pressing and palm wiping. Several of the pictures are of toys, models, objects in cases. Dane is constantly teasing us, forcing us to rethink the veracity of a photograph.
Dane's work retains a painter's concern with surface. Textures, objects and reflections overlap, creating ambivalent space. The photographer's angle is often awkward, seeming to shove the subject matter out of the frame. In San Francisco, which shows a primitive, zebra-striped figure on a flag, the picture plane is flattened and tilted; the composition, disjoined. San Francisco is a study of a deserted stage on which are music stands that look ready to slide off the polished wood into the viewer's lap.
Dane provides no context for his subject matter. Titles are merely geographical locations, and visual clues in the pictures are minimal. For instance, it takes quite a while to figure out that a gleaming metal contraption is a gynecologist's examination table. In another image, the juxtaposition of a tilted plexiglass case in the foreground and a wall of photographs behind it is so appealing that the fact that the subjects of the photographs are prisoners in Nazi concentration camps—and that the case contains dusty little shoes—almost doesn't register.
Although these photographs are provocative and clever, they also seem rather empty. In some instances, the distancing and disorienting techniques work too well, and the photographer's lack of involvement with the subject matter is disconcerting. Without that personal resonance, though we may be intrigued, the humor doesn't quite hit its mark, and the work comes off as harsh and easy.