Robert Frank published a series of photographs in the late 1950s titled, “The Americans.” It was a view of America’s social strata and attitudes at the time from an arm’s length away; Frank was a Swiss immigrant. His unprecedented photographic techniques paired with the poignant yet simple subject matter of everyday scenes across the States solidified his place in photography’s history.
Over 50 years later, New Yorker Damaso Reyes has taken Frank’s concept of everyday moments as microcosms of a society and inverted it to apply to Europeans. His exhibit, “The Europeans,” now showing at the Worth Ryder Gallery at UC Berkeley, isn’t just a cheeky reversal of Frank’s groundbreaking work. Instead, Reyes explores the syncretism of immigration and modern European society.
Being a minority often categorizes one as an outsider, and many of Reyes’ photos reflect this alienation, especially when the subject’s gaze greets the camera. Such is the case with “Waiting.” In the photo, a young girl at a train station looks as if she has stopped mid-conversation to look over at Reyes with only a slight turn of the head. Her gaze is accusatory to some degree but shows intrigue at the camera and the cameraman. As with many of the best documentary-style photographs, if he took the photo a second later or a second too soon, we wouldn’t be left with such a thought-provoking glance.
These raw moments are more profound in black and white film. Though the majority of the exhibit is the same sized black and white prints, one multimedia piece resides in the corner — a flat-screen TV showing a slideshow of his series of photos taken at a Pentecostal service in Barcelona, accompanied by a pair of headphones playing a conglomeration of voices, presumably from the participants. The interactive piece, however, doesn’t succeed in creating an immersive environment. The same photos in the color slideshow on the screen are in black and white on the far wall but are not as compelling. One is moved by the gradients of light in the grainy black and white photos of the physical manifestations of faith. However, translated into color on the screen they seem invasive.
This observant — rather than participant — method is Reyes’ strength. Though he is a journalist, his artistic talent is evident. But in the Worth Ryder gallery, his craft isn’t displayed to its potential. The photos border each other, forcing a continuing thought process for photographs that weren’t even taken in the same country. There is no labeling of the scenes other than titles, which are only located on one end of the wall for an entire string of photos.
In the gallery, the unframed line of photos do not offer any specificity of location. On Reyes’ website for “The Europeans,” he classifies the photographs by both theme and city and also offers a short sentence to succinctly describe the scene without assuming anything about his subjects. The main themes of his work consist of identity, politics, immigration and economics. Some of his categorization surprises the viewer. The exhibit downplays the vast experiences and places that Reyes has already photographed and also doesn’t mention that his series is a work in progress.
Reyes’ synthesis of these images is lost in the way they are displayed. His work is aesthetically and socially intriguing, but the organization of the show disconnects viewers from the deeper links between the image and the societal analysis. One is left only fascinated visually without the opportunity to meditate further on the lives presented before them.
When: Through Mar. 23
Event: Artist Talk on Thursday, March 14, 5-7 pm
A.J. Kiyoizumi covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].