The Knoxville Museum of Art’s recently mounted Streetwise show, presenting now iconic work by artists including Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand, represents an almost seismic shift in the motivations behind what we call documentary photography—a shift reflecting the confusion and tumult of the 1960s—so it’s only fitting that photographs created anywhere along the cultural fault line could prove significant.
Streetwise Knoxville, at 2 Many Pixels Gallery on Jackson Avenue through June (with a First Friday opening on June 1), is a striking collection of images being presented in conjunction with those at KMA. Taken between the mid-’60s and now, the works on display are by four photographers who have explored our not-always-so-fair city and have clearly been influenced by work now featured at the museum. Veteran shooter Don Dudenbostel has the lion’s share of prints on view, followed by Martin Klima, Julie Oglesby, and Lauren Lee. And Dudenbostel’s efforts are, admittedly, most interesting in terms of their range, particularly if you’ve inhabited this town far longer than you ever thought possible. Yet Dudenbostel’s pictures have plenty to offer otherwise, as do those of his fellow exhibitors.
In addition to spanning decades, Dudenbostel’s images cover all the bases associated with our region—everything from 1970s streakers and the Ku Klux Klan to bible thumpers and snake handlers. Addressing race and class in urban scenarios, Klima traverses some of the same territory with an impressive ability to mine that which is timeless within the undeniably contemporary. Lee appears to have an intuitive feel for telling moments, whether they relate to the realm of human drama or are simply a matter of light and shadow, physical substance or the mere reflection of it. Oglesby (exhibiting the only color photography in the show) also seems primarily drawn to the purely visual, and it’s when her emphasis on color and composition does not overwhelm the people in her pictures that their greater potential is realized.
Of the three dozen or so photographs by Dudenbostel, a series of images concerned with cock fighting and another batch of pictures revealing rarely documented Klan activities are particularly strong. One portrait of a man tenderly holding a rooster is countered with the close-up shot of a vicious-looking blade attached to a cock’s foot. Another portrait’s focus is the world-weary expression of a little girl in a chicken pen, her clean and delicately embroidered dress in strange contrast with a barbaric practice viewers can only assume she’s come to know well.
Equally jarring is the inclusion of costumed children in a long row of Klansmen receding into darkness, and Dudenbostel’s view of proceedings from afar is surreal, as well. The distant circle of hooded participants surrounding a burning cross looks dreamlike, resembling a diorama, albeit a twisted one. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators on the University of Tennessee campus are the subject of yet another group of powerful images.
Klima’s work, although less despairing than that of Dudenbostel’s, likewise conveys an unsettling sense of personal and cultural isolation. However, the joyfulness of neighborhood kids goofing off and the tight-knit connection of folks hanging around playing chess in his images is palpably uplifting. I only wish that all of Klima’s prints were large-scale, as the bigger ones practically vibrate with vitality. Lee’s images are quieter, but not without the energy that comes from heightened visual awareness.
Whereas Dudenbostel and Klima consistently achieve a synthesis between subject matter and approach, Lee and Oglesby head in two different directions—on the one hand, toward semiabstract photography that might be realized anywhere and, on the other, into local specificity. Even when driven by people and things that can only exist “on the street” in a particular place in time, images by Lee and Oglesby fit a category apart from the tradition epitomized by Arbus and others in the KMA exhibition. Those artists, and the photographers on display at 2 Many Pixels that they have influenced, have pursued what greatly admired curator John Szarkowski, head of photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 until 1991, described as a “documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”
The pictures by Lee and Oglesby are geared toward personal ends, and those ends relate as much to what we’d call art photography as they do to documentary photography, from any era. Nevertheless, work in the separate shows is linked, perhaps above all else, by a fascination with the act of photographing itself. And that act, when it comes to either Streetwise show, has produced memorable images of both inner and outer worlds.