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Review: Paul D’Amato/DePaul Art Museum

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"Mike and Doug," 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago.

“Mike and Doug,” 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago.


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.

8 Responses to “Review: Paul D’Amato/DePaul Art Museum”

  1. cplumb Says:

    I am compelled to respond- in order to perhaps begin a dialog about some of the issues mentioned. I believe that this is a very important series of portraits. D’Amato’s earlier work was a different (less developed?) stye than these pictures. These are slower. I like to see growth and change and movement within an artist’s career- not the same thing again and again. Is there something that makes a viewer uncomfortable with this new, very close series of portraits taken over a long period of time? What about the issue of displacement from Cabrini Green? The mark-making, abstract images address some deep ideas about Chicago; they are contradictions, and take a look at the failure of public housing paired with the reality of people’s actual lives there- those marks show life and connect me to the place vs the idea of the place. To me, there is a lot more here to talk about than pointing out the whiteness of the photographer. Why is that a focus here? These portraits reveal some kind of heart or spirit that flood me with questions, admiration, judgement, sadness, identification, and things that challenge and scare me– this is what good photographs can do.

  2. llincoln Says:

    I can’t let Mike Weinstein’s review of the current exhibition of Paul D’Amato’s photos pass without comment. Mike apparently views the work as some sort of pretentious art/sociology project in which the subjects are manipulated and exploited in order to provide the photographer with edgy thrills. This view casts D’Amato as naïve and possibly unprincipled. Worse, it deprives his sitters of perceptiveness and autonomy, whereas in fact they have a sophisticated and highly nuanced understanding of the social transactions around the photography project and exert the degree of control they want.

    D’Amato and his subjects collaborate to choose their setting, dress, and pose. They do in fact look ordinary, a point that will be understood in different ways by different audiences. D’Amato’s work is not directed towards educating middle-class whites, nor to preserving a vanishing culture. It is an honest attempt to engage complex issues of race, class, and visual culture. The process of making these images is not easy for either party; the willingness of both to undertake it is admirable, and its inherent difficulty is what gives the photos their edge.

    -Louise Lincoln, DPAM Director

  3. dawoudbey Says:

    The making of a portrait is always a complicated proposition, freighted as it is with the individual’s sense of self, the photographer’s sense of the subject (which is no doubt different from the subject’s self-perception), and the way the viewer ends up bringing his or her own subjectivities to the viewing experience. To the degree that there is some difference between subject and photographer–whether a difference of race, class, age, gender, sexuality, or some combination of these–the equation is further complicated and the way the work comes to exist in the world becomes that much more complicated. These differences are not necessarily an impediment to intimacy or a roadblock to empathy, but something to be negotiated. The photographs are the results of both that interest and negotiation.

    It’s too bad that Michael Weinstein chose to engage these potentially interesting and provocative ideas in such a highly superficial manner. Paul D’Amato’s work deserves better. The purpose of viewing work on public display is to convey what that work makes you think, to actually respond to the thing in front of you…ideally through both the head and the heart. I have no idea what Michael Weinstein actually thought of Paul D’Amato’s photographs. Much the way Richard Avedon’s “American West” photographs were critically disparaged because Avedon was not from the west, and not from the same social class as his subjects, Weinstein has chosen to not respond to the photographs in front of him, but to instead respond to what he sees as a fundamentally flawed set of intentions between this photographer and the peope he has chosen to picture.

    I know Michael, he’s been a valued part of our community for a very long time. Would that he had wrapped his fine intellect around this exhibition in a more meaningful and instructive way. It would have served him, the work, the reader, and the state of art criticism here in Chicago much better.

    Dawoud Bey

  4. Anne Harris Says:

    This review baffles me. From the dismissive use of the word “hood,” to the summary of all the portrait subjects as having the same expression, a “stoical look…suffused by more than a hint of sourness and a bit of a hostile edge that gives them “attitude.” Did this writer actually look at this work? Does he know who these people are? Is he actually saying that Pastor Cleophus Lee has a sour hostile expression with just enough attitude? Does he have an inability to recognize facial expressions or is that ability simply eclipsed for him by race and class? Does he assume all photographs are staged? Does he think the human beings in these photographs would permit themselves to be staged? Again, does he have any idea who they are?

    Clearly, the writer went into this exhibition with a preconception about the photographer and the subject. This has blinded him to what’s actually there. What I see: intense subtlety, a range of feeling (sometimes in the same picture) of pensiveness, calm, warmth, dignity, intelligence, and focus. It’s true, there are no full fledged smiles, a result of the large format slow exposure and a desire to avoid the frozen grins, but a face that isn’t smiling is not therefore sour. And of course, there’s the fact that the pictures are beautifully made, in a precise reverential conversation with the history of portraiture.

    I’ve looked longer and harder at this work than anyone else but Paul (I’m his wife, among other things which relate to art, painting and portraiture) and this work is complicated. It deserves in depth consideration on many levels, from sociological to artistic. This writer is not up to the task.

  5. jaywolke Says:

    Since several people have already discussed the identity politics of both photographer and reviewer, and because Dawoud Bey has also vividly outlined the complicated process of making photographic portraits, I will not belabor those points. I would like to state, however, that Mr. Weinstein fails to recognize Paul D’Amato’s brilliance in the making of large-format photographs; the inherent qualities of this type of picture making and it’s relationship to portraiture, in particular. While the reviewer criticizes the photographer’s apparent control of the process, it is, and has always been, a fallacious argument that photography is anything but a constructed proposition. The use of a view camera demands greater attention to construction and control, as the greater detail, color saturation and rendering of light necessarily command more attention from the viewer. Also, the time spent between photographer and subject, as well as the longer shutter speeds, have significant effects on the resulting image– eccentric gesture or facial expression simply add to the appearance of manipulation on the photographer’s part. I think Weinstein is confusing “formal and still” with measured and intense. These photographs by Paul D’Amato provoke an intimate exchange between the subject and the viewer, creating a first-person, narrative voice. Contrary to your comment that these subjects display a “uniformity of expression”, the photographs actually resonate with complexity and individuality. Equally important is the photographer’s unfailing ability to compliment his subjects with environmental factors– producing an even more comprehensive portrayal. (An aside here: Michael you’ve also failed to mention that in the accompanying catalogue, many of the portraits are, in fact, represented as double images- showing alternate exposures and expressions. This is a very intelligent way of demonstrating the intrinsic subjectivity in making still, photographic portraits.) The fact that D’Amato is clearly displaying such mastery should demand the greatest attention and praise, not the cursory review that has been provided. There are only a handful of artists capable of making photographs of caliber, and I believe there should also be criticism equal to that task.

  6. rherman Says:

    I hesitate to pile on here, but I, too, am baffled by this review. Social documentarians and cultural critics alike run the risk of careening into many pitfalls in the course of doing their work, some of which include clinging to ingoing assumptions, treating their subjects glibly or otherwise disrespectfully, and spending too little time familiarizing themselves with complex subject matter. Paul D’Amato’s exhibition demonstrates that he has assiduously avoided these missteps, while our reviewer has managed to clumsily tumble into all of them here.

  7. Sarah Can Says:

    The commenters here, like all of us, are bringing their conceptions of race and their friendships with the photographer into their interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, I see the reviewer’s point much more clearly here. I loved Paul’s earlier work but this work is not as compelling. Is that because the subjects are black and he is white? No. It’s because I don’t see the “pensiveness, calm, warmth, dignity, intelligence, and focus” in the photos or D’Amato’s “familiarity with complex subject matter”. Maybe he has real political engagement with the subjects that makes this work more interesting than it seems at first glance. But I understand the photographer is not that engaged. I’m left just looking at the photos.

  8. mountshang Says:

    The reviewer seems to have been responding to prominent signage in the gallery telling us the artist “aspires to narrow the divide between his and his sitters’ subjective experience in order to create photographs that are at once genuine and aesthetically engaging”

    To me, the opulent brilliance of the well composed color prints contrasts sharply with the dead-end lives of the subjects. Do any of them appear to have a rich inner life
    or prospects for success in this world? They all seem a good fit for the defeatist title given to the exhibit:
    “We Shall” – without the “Overcome” that once followed it on the decaying public mural whose photograph is included in the show.

    So I would tend to agree that the artist “retreated to the role of the photographer who comes to the scene with the practices from whence he came” — and I don’t see any arguments to the contrary among the six responses – regardless of the other important issues that they raise.

    If the artist was striving to be “genuine” as defined above, he failed.

    But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made some great, thought provoking photographs – or that he hasn’t been ‘genuine’, as in being true to himself.

    …Chris Miller

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