Proofing the Years – Jerry Mann

Jean cornered me at the Lit, again. I committed to another show, and now I had to show what I was worth…be an artist again. What have I done since ‘Hands’? Well, honestly, nothing. But I realized that I’d been shooting all along, for over ten years, and had thousand of black and white negatives to prove it. I figured why make more negatives when I’ve already got some laying around?

This reasoning grew into a real concept after a while. I created all these images over time, never really edited them, and now I would see what I had. It would be a study on what I perceived as ‘art’ then, and what I thought passed as art now. And  I wanted to allow the gallery visitor to see what my choices were. I was ready to cover every square foot of Southside’s wall space with prints. And my ‘picks’ would be somehow framed out from the rest. Or they would be strung all across the gallery. Or there would be stacks on the floor or on a shelf below that year’s pick, set up in chronological, timeline fashion.

That was all too complicated. And what if there was nothing good from 1992? Would I have to show an image from 1992, even if 1992 was not a good year? So I figured I’d start editing and making work prints of my favorites. For a while, I was pretty sure that there was a good reason I never showed my work for ten years. I eventually just went with gut choices. I tried to pick stuff I thought would push peoples’ ideas of what a good photo was. I wanted to avoid typically pretty pictures, technical achievements and sappy remembrances. I had a lot of crap in those ten years of negatives.

But it was crap that was important to me. A lot of them were murky images from a Dianna-type plastic camera. ‘Veselka’ was so dark and abstract, that when I found the print the other day I wasn’t sure if it was an image of anything. I now remember why it was chosen. It was an image of my friend Paul at Veselka Cafe in NYC, our old favorite eatery. There are plates and cups and saucers, and Paul is reaching for his coffee. It was dark, and the camera had a slow lens, but I could do multiple exposures. I just clicked the shutter about 30 times, telling Paul (and myself) to hold still. I had burned enough light onto the film to get an adequate, if unsharp, exposure. That had meaning to me. At the time, I was no longer living in New York, but visiting off and on. My memories were fading, and I was trying to keep up with my friends who were still stomping around in the East Village. A dark, murky and technically desperate photo was very appropriate

I think I found valid visual statements. There was a grainy 20×24 inch print of a roadkill. A triptych self-portrait that I created for a brief NYC flame. A plastic-lensed rendering of a shutdown New Jersey boardwalk. Stark depictions of a fireplug, smokestacks and the iced-over lake. A dreamy document of an early date with my partner Sally Hudak. A print from a muddy (literally) negative I found while walking Jeak at Gordon Park. In summary, some of those pretty
pictures, technical achievements and sappy remembrances crept in. Even my beautiful pinhole portrait of Thaddeus Root had been exhibited before, as part of his Southside ‘Thirty’ show. It’s hard to stick to hard and fast rules when you are just looking for great images.

Then I had to present the whole gob of contact sheets and work prints. I wanted to invite the visitors to peruse the options. I wanted people to take some time with it. So I put our kitchen table in the center of the room, with chairs, good lighting and a magnifying glass. At the opening, the pictures were spread all over. It was great to see people looking through my history. Some people got into single contact sheets, trying to understand why one frame was circled, but not the nearly identical frame beside it. Others just enjoyed searching for mages of themselves or someone they knew. An unfortunate reviewer from Art Papers considered my display a trite attempt to recreate a photojournalist’s editing room. He was full of shit. Obviously it’s upsetting when our intentions are misread. Another reviewer from the Free Times saw it as a unique opportunity to see into the process and growth of a photographer. He was right on.

It’s a good thing I put my shows together for myself, without regard for the viewers or reviewers. That way I get satisfaction from the effort, no matter who comes to see it, or what they think.

I actually thought about one other person besides myself while putting together Proofing the Years. That was Arnold Gassan, Professor of Art at Ohio University, to whom the show was dedicated. During photography practicum class, Arnold told us to bring in our entire volume of photographs. Everything. I obliged, and Arnold’s eyes gleamed as I lifted stack after stack of photos from boxes. Arnold got to work, scanning my work and pacing the room. He found my worst and best, using words like ‘cliche’, ‘movement,’ ‘empty’ and ‘exuberant.’ Sorting and sifting, he found visual meaning amongst work that ranged from wrestlers to fashion models. In the end, I was beat up and uplifted. Arnold taught me to look back at where I’ve been, and he gave me the first notion that my work was valid.
Jerry Mann
Proofing the Years – black & white photographs                                                                         April 8 – 30, 2000

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