Thomas Schiff’s ‘The Poetics of Distortion’ both achieves its goal, falls flat in exhibition

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Panoramas attempt to capture more. They are a wider, longer view of a scene, breaking the limits of a typical photograph. Sometimes this method leads to a distorted effect, one that could either hinder or benefit the representation of the photographic scene.

Cincinnati-based photographer Thomas R. Schiff has dedicated an exhibition to this exact medium and its implications: showing the wide angle, distortion or not. In his “The Poetics of Distortion,” Schiff strives to show the bigger picture while at the same time narrowing in on the details. His effort is, at times, extremely effective as his subject matches up with the elements of panoramas but at other times they clash.

“The Poetics of Distortion,” which premiered over two nights at San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Photo Center and Minnesota Street Project, aims to show locations of the Bay Area likely familiar with most viewers — but through a particular perspective. Schiff hopes to showcase the San Francisco Bay Area, an area with which he has long been fascinated, through the specific viewpoint panoramas allow.

One of the more fascinating elements of panoramas is their particular ability to capture movement. For many of his photographs, Schiff leans into the ways movement can benefit his art. In one photograph depicting San Francisco’s well-known Mission Dolores Park, Schiff captures the liveliness of busy park days. In one corner, a young girl in a bright pink dress waves her arms, a motion suggested by the blurriness in the image. It is a compelling look into the vitality of a crowded park on a sunny day within the confines of a still photograph.

Schiff utilizes stillness to his advantage in some of the other photographs. In one of the most striking pieces, “Paramount Theatre, Lower Lobby” the Oakland concert hall takes center stage. In the photo, an empty hallway — something that in theory is not very interesting — becomes incredibly captivating. The length of it is rounded by the distortion of the panoramic view, the darkness appearing stretched out. The result brings a striking eeriness to the hallway that wouldn’t be present in real life.

A lack of this contorting effect is what doesn’t work with some of the other photographs. Many of them present a viewpoint that could easily be seen with the naked eye. Such pieces don’t evoke any particular emotion or tone. With “The Palace of Fine Arts” for example, Schiff showcases the beauty of the structure — yet the source of that beauty comes from the Palace itself, not from any new or unique presentation on Schiff’s part. The same applies for the photographs of the SF MOMA or the international terminal of San Francisco International Airport; the stills are too similar to what would be seen in real life to be exciting or especially engaging.

While the photographs of many notable Bay Area buildings aren’t as effective as intended, many of those depicting more mundane locations are. In “Tobacco Shop,” Schiff showcases a small corner store in Oakland. In the photograph, all of the small items being sold and the posters on the wall above the register are magnified by the panoramic frame. The cashier is blurred out but the items are in focus, making them the photographer’s subject. It’s magnetic in its detail and a picture that can be looked at for hours. The shot of the MOMA just simply does not have this effect.

If Schiff’s goal is to present the Bay Area’s familiarity in an unfamiliar way, then he does achieve it — for some of the photographs. If he were to focus more on the details of the mundanity, like a tobacco shop’s unique atmosphere, or play with tone, as he does with a theatre’s hallway, he would reach that level of unfamiliarity which he is presumably aiming for. Unfortunately, in “The Poetics of Distortion,” attention to the landmarks of the city gets in the way of his ability to distort tone and perspective.

‘The Poetics of Distortion’ will be showing at the Harvey Milk Photo Center and Minnesota Street Project through March 31 and March 2, respectively.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].