For my own personal taste, I love smartly curated and thoughtful exhibits of visual arts. While I enjoy exhibits grouped by artist or artists, by common theme, era or influence – or even simply medium – there is something about exhibits that prompt larger-scale thought or contemplation well removed from the typical avenues of art, that truly engage me.
It's no surprise that Tulsa's Philbrook Museum of Art has one such exhibit. Well, to be honest, there might well be numerous such exhibits on display at this amazing museum; but my concentration is on one in particular.
Let me permit Philbrook to introduce the exhibit, Unexpected, as they intended:
"In the early 20th century, inexpensive box cameras suddenly empowered many individuals – without training or experience, often without a basic grasp of artistic practice – to create complex images. The result was a great eruption of picture making, a flow of creative effort in which ordinary people responded to their experience by holding a lens between themselves and the world. The resulting images are now referred to as 'vernacular photography.' Can a photograph taken by a citizen photographer rise to the level of artistic importance? Where does documentation end and art begin? Does vernacular photography have a place in our digital present or future? This exhibition of approximately 40 vernacular photographs will provide a platform for considering these questions and more."
I strongly recommend the thoughtful and those dubious of some of the more elitist aspects of art in major cities back on my home East Coast to see this exhibit. Frankly, it answers the questions presented in its introduction without hammering them home.
The answer, from the perspective of this humble art-lover, to the integral questions of "vernacular art" is yes. Yes, the photographs of an average person rise to the level of art. Yes, there is a nexus of documentation and art – when a simple image moves the viewer beyond the simple representation's ability to so do. Yes, vernacular photography has a place in our digital present and future because it has authenticity.
This exhibit reveals as much, without advocating, inappropriately, the position. Again, brilliant.
The theme of the exhibit reminds me of an anachronistic personal experience. Years ago, a magazine commissioned me to travel to a Midwest state fair to write about the experience and the deeper meaning, to a largely upscale, urban readership. En route, I had a stop in a relatively small city far of the radar of national news. Being a newshound, I had to read the local newspaper. There, on the cover, was an odd image out of context: an upside down kid's bicycle, peddle obviously still in motion, and – blurred out in the background – a blacktop highway in a clearly dim, rainy situation. The accompanying story detailed a tragic accident involving a truck and two young boys. The story was competent and, as typical of a small market reporter, intended to evoke emotion and thought with few actual details.
But the photo, which sadly I recently lost track of, was far more effective. The photographer was a motorist who happened to come by in the wake of the accident. As far as I can tell, he never had another photograph published.
This wasn't just an evocative news photo. The thing is, the photo, standing along, I believe, would have provoked a certain reaction that art does – not your usual front-page news photo reaction.
In today's world, where everyone from children to professionals have the ability to take photos at any time, I think the philosophy of this brilliant and understated exhibit can't be ignored.
It promotes truth and is ultimately democratic.
It would be a shame for such thoughtfulness to go under-appreciated. Please visit www.philbrook.org for more information, make the effort and ask yourself if maybe you can't see images that reflect the human condition on a daily basis.
-Michael W. Sasser is Oklahoma Magazine’s senior editor and an award-winning journalist. For comments or suggestions, reach him at [email protected].