Local arts center showcases aspects of American life

Two young bullriders give tough-guy looks to the camera, next to an elderly woman who stares despondently into the waters of her bath. Around the corner, two circus clowns hide behind their masks in a corner of an outdoor trailer, and couples dance in a Mississippi night club.

These sights of everyday America from the past four decades, recalling everything from the turmoil of the Vietnam War to the thrills of the big top, are on display at the Manchester Craftsmen?s Guild for the next two months, as the organization presents the work of a pair of contemporary photographers.

The show brings together 33 selected works from American Odyssey, a 1999 book by Mary Ellen Mark, and 20 photographs in the Circus series by Norma I. Quintana. Both exhibits opened on October 21 at the MCG?s Galleries on the North Side.

Mark, a contributing photographer at The New Yorker, has won international accolades for her photo essays, ranging from shots of Mother Teresa in India to a series on runaway children in Seattle. She has published 15 books, and her work has also appeared in the pages of Life, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone.

Her works on display at MCG date from between 1963 and 1999. They are selected from the much larger body of work that appeared in American Odyssey, but still provide a representative sample, said Angeliki Georgiou, MCG?s coordinator of visiting artists and exhibitions.

?I feel that we have a good selection of the different groups she followed through the years,? Georgiou said.

?From the extremely poor to the very rich, I have been a witness to some of the things that make this country so extraordinary,? Mark stated. ?I have photographed people at baby beauty pageants and in singles bars, at twins? conventions and Ku Klux Klan gatherings.?

A striking characteristic of many of Mark?s photos at MCG is the intense relationship she creates between subject and viewer. The subjects of these photographs stare intently into the camera lens, variously evoking aloofness, sullenness, or an odd sense of detachment from their surroundings.

In one exposure, for example, a large woman in dark formal wear gives an arch look over her shoulder as a lapdog licks her face.

The images present a side of the U.S. different from the glamorous one seen elsewhere, Georgiou said, noting that Mark calls herself a ?street photographer.? But the presentation features the country?s lighter side as well, with shots of bodybuilders, children playing in Central Park, and spring break crowds from Daytona Beach. ?My travels through America have defined my vision as a photographer,? said Mark.

MCG?s second exhibit features West Coast photographer Norma I. Quintana. She studied for a time under Mark during a series of workshops in Mexico, and Georgiou said she chose to pair Quintana?s work with Mark?s in order to highlight this mentee-mentor relationship.

Quintana produced her Circus series over the past eight years, recording the off-stage life of Circus Chimera, a Mexican one-ring traveling group. Her photographs, all taken without artificial lighting, have mainly been exhibited in California, but the installment at MCG is half of a traveling exhibit that was previously at Penn State University.

The 20 photographs, arranged around the perimeter of a larger hall, create a gentler initial impression than Mark?s works, which are grouped more tightly in a smaller room. Supplementing this freedom of space is a certain freedom of expression in the photographed subjects: a close-up of one circus performer displays a secretive smile, something that might seem out of place in Mark?s more dramatic shots.

Though the faces of the subjects are less startling and more relaxed in many cases, Quintana?s refusal to shoot with artificial light provides an interesting study of color tones elsewhere in the photograph. Outdoor exposures, with full natural light, tend toward well-balanced moderate gray tones; photos taken indoors or at night exhibit a stark contrast between bright whites and deep blacks that enhance the overall depth of the scene.

Both Mark and Quintana visited MCG last month to give public lectures and conduct workshops with students in the guild?s after-school program. As a non-profit arts organization, MCG offers programs in photography, ceramics, and sculpture to students from Pittsburgh public high schools; the center also employs an artist in residence for in-school visits. During her visit in October, Quintana helped students take photos at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, and Georgiou said the students are now working on producing their own exhibition with the results.