Back in the day, as a young social photographer, Paul D’Amato went out into Chicago’s black and Hispanic neighborhoods with the wish of so many of the young middle-class white males of his generation: to connect with the homies or, as sociologists say, to get a shot of “prestige from below”—mean, tragic and vitalizing street style.
Now middle aged, D’Amato has continued to hang around the ‘hood, but he has shifted his approach to the more restrained and sedate project of shooting color portraits of its residents. D’Amato’s images place his subjects in their own environments, but they are decidedly formal and still, as though the subjects were in the studio.
D’Amato never became a homie; he stayed, but he retreated to the role of the photographer who comes to the scene with the practices from whence he came. That perhaps harsh judgment can be readily confirmed by examining the representation of D’Amato’s subjects.
In all of the twenty-four portraits, the African-American subjects, whether young or old, or male or female, have exactly the same expression on their invariably closed lips—a stoical look suffused by more than a hint of sourness and a bit of a hostile edge that gives them “attitude,” but not too much. In the balance between the photographer’s and the subject’s contributions to the representation, it is clear that the photographer is in control here; such uniformity of expression would be impossible otherwise.
D’Amato also seems to have retreated from his early zest to partake of the wild side; most of his subjects are ordinary people, in ordinary dress, living presumably ordinary lives. Perhaps this is a way of humanizing the ‘hood and still showing that life there is tough. Only once does D’Amato give us a glimpse of what he used to be; we see two older macho tough guys parked in a blue convertible next to an overgrown patch of weeds, both of them sporting the D’Amato look, but one of them at least with a cigarette stuck in his pursed lips. (Michael Weinstein)
Through November 24 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton.
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