Hand of the Artist

Manipulated and fabricated photographs

The Liberated Image, Fabricated Photography Since 1975, at the Leepa-Rattner Museum, features 16 well known artists whose work was borrowed from the Tampa Museum of Art's permanent collection. Images are mostly from the 1980s, with two from the mid-'70s. For good reason, Leepa-Rattner Museum Director Lynn Whitelaw calls the exhibition of large format works "a sampler."

This peek at relatively recent photography successfully extends the museum's early and mid-20th century focus on painters Abraham Rattner, his wife Esther Gentle and his stepson Alan Leepa.

The Liberated Image is effective because it surveys an important transitional period in the history of photography. At the heart of the exhibition are 17 manipulated and/or fabricated photographs before the era of digitalization, double-click, and Photoshop, which means, loosely speaking, that the hand of the artist remains present. And what a lineup. It reads like a Who's Who, with names like Eileen Cowin, Cindy Sherman, Sandy Skogland, William Wegman, James Casebere, John Baldessari, and Barbara Ess. Their wide range of processes includes various darkroom strategies, arranging and photographing sculptural elements, and pinhole photography.

As fascinating as these diverse methods are, and however we revere process or maintain profound respect for the human-touch or personal intervention, in the final analysis it's still the image that speaks powerfully. Or not.

Our response is intuitive. Does the image enter our space and embed its presence into our visual memory? Does it transcend the particular historical time in which it was created? Or is it just another coldly conceptual visual experience?

Here's a small sampling of these influential artists and their images.

Sherman creates figurative narratives of female identity. Crossing boundaries between artist and subject, she disguises herself with makeup and various costumes, some simulating various historical periods. Within her implied critique, she draws attention to the female as sex object while theoretically inviting the viewer to become a voyeur. Though Sherman's conceptual themes often remain confusing and contradictory, she has nevertheless created a provocative body of work that is not easily dismissed or forgotten. In her "Untitled" image, a clenched fist intensifies her menacing demeanor, open mouth and body lit from below to intensify the sense of monumentality.

Wegman also plays with identity, as always, through his beloved Weimaraners. In "Untitled (Fay Draped in Red)" 1988, we glimpse only the outer configuration of his dog without ever seeing a single hair or whisker. Disguise takes Wegman to another level entirely.

Barbara Ess, whose diverse background included philosophy and film school, helped to revive pinhole photography in the '80s. With blurred edges and, as always, an unsettling sense of place, her images seem to explore spatial dimensions that may or may not actually exist. "Untitled (Child Screaming)," a color print from 1986, is one of her strongest images. She says it was the result of a serendipitous moment; however, it not only transcends time and space but transforms pure childhood terror into an iconic emblem for our epoch.

Anti-art superstar John Baldessari has been influential for decades, but his large-scale gelatin silver print, "Waterline," 1986, reminds us of why conceptual art can be so easy to dismiss. His five images connected by water themes feel strained and forced — the whole unable to overcome the parts.

Three photographers arrange sculptural objects into tableaux that resemble stage sets. Cowin, who creates wonderfully dramatic scenes, places two figures on a simple black background. Casebere builds small imaginary interior models and then photographs the constructions as if they were large-scale architectural sites. In his "Waterfall," 1984, we are drawn into a mysterious yet comforting interior scene. Skogland also creates her own sculptural components and then places them in edgy humorous formats. Her contribution here, from 1986, is called "Germs are Everywhere."

If you haven't visited the Leepa-Rattner Museum yet, this show offers a really satisfying mix of art and photography. The Liberated Image is just the right size for laying the foundation for intelligent photography viewing.

Two Thumbs Up Andy Warhol paved the way for fusing art and life. In an equally unconventional fashion, Tampa photographer Michael Phillips continues this historical legacy.

In 1996, when Michael was 15, he set out to establish himself as a celebrity photographer. Creating a personal top 10 list of subjects, he sought and photographed people like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and David Letterman, all of whom form the nucleus of a unique solo exhibition at St. Pete's M. Petty Gallery.

How'd he get to Letterman? Networking of course. Phillips says he "knew someone who knew Letterman's people." Mike and Letterman hit it off right away and the comic requested a particular look for his photos. "I've always wanted to look mean" he told his 15-year-old photographer. Phillips obliged.

The easygoing camaraderie and subsequent relationship significantly altered the young man's life. I suspect the same was true for Letterman, who once remarked jokingly to his persistent friend, "You're getting to be a real pain in the ass."

In the last seven years, Phillips has also captured the faces of President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and famous sports figures, among others.

And the unconventional process?

Mike can not sit or walk. He can't hold a camera or feed himself. He breathes with battery assistance.

Mike has Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a.k.a. SMA or spinal muscular atrophy. His mother, Karen Clay, says it's one of the rarest neuromuscular disorders and that less than 1 percent of the population with this disease worldwide has lived as long as her son, who is now 22. The single parent, and fierce advocate of technological assistance for the disabled, also has a 20-year-old son Brian who is studying journalism at the University of Florida.

I first met the photographer and his mother last year at Hyde Park's Tampa Gallery of Photographic Art. I was astonished to learn that the young man lying prone on the flat reclining wheelchair was also a photographer. Though he has lost control of his entire body since the disease was diagnosed when he was 9 months old, he retains the ability to move his thumbs. In effect, his brain and thumb become a single circuit.

Two digits enabling a life of great substance. Mike's not only a photographer and digital artist; he's also an Apple Master, a designation awarded to fewer than 100 people in the world. He was the first disabled person and the youngest to be recognized in this way. He also writes and edits material about computers.

His mother explains the paradoxical nature of a totally intact brain failing to connect messages with muscles. Technological wizardry and a mother's devotion and advocacy permit her son to thrive though he wasn't expected to reach his first birthday. During his school years when Mike was still able to move his hands and feet, he propelled his own wheelchair.

I asked about Mike's early visual abilities and visual acuity. His mother says he has always drawn. "When he couldn't draw any more, he was at a loss." His close-up vision is intact.

How does Mike take photos? Each thumb pulls a string switch, one to focus a camera mounted directly onto his chair, and the other to shoot the image. "His chair is like a natural tripod," his mother says.

Photography is not Mike's only claim to fame. During a period when he was unable to attend high school, Letterman gifted his young friend with his first computer and has continued to supply him with later versions plus software. Mike creates computer art using Photoshop and Karen reports that Apple now sends him everything he needs.

Mike served on the state's accessibility task force, and speaks across the country, using a power point presentation.

At M. Petty Gallery, check out the triumph of process and a good eye. You won't likely forget Michael Phillips' art and life.

You can see some of his work on his website at www.emacartist.com.

Art Critic Adrienne M. Golub can be reached at [email protected].

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