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Bruce Jackson in Buffalo Spree by Bruce Adams

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Been there, shot that The documentary photography of Bruce Jackson by Bruce Adams in April 2013's Buffalo Spree


Anyone who’s ever perused an art history book will be familiar with The Ambassadors, a sixteenth-century double portrait by renowned Northern Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger. It pictures two wealthy, educated, and influential young men standing on each side of a doubletiered table laden with objects that represent their lives and reflect the political and social turmoil of the time. Gazing serenely out at the viewer, the two would be all but forgotten today if not for Holbein, who spent much of his life documenting notable figures of England’s Royal Court.

Holbein’s Ambassadors and his many other portraits come to mind when viewing Being There: Bruce Jackson, Photographs 1962–2012, now on exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Jackson is a man of many interests: he is a renowned folklorist, writer, filmmaker, and a University at Buffalo distinguished professor of American culture. In the 1970s he received a Grammy nomination for his recordings of prison work songs. A scholarly and engaged activist, his provocative essays on various social and political topics have frequently appeared in the pages of Artvoice. For fifty years, Jackson has also been a photographer, a fact amply illustrated by this exhibition.

The show is organized into thematic sections, each representing a facet of the photographer’s oeuvre. Some sections are demarcated by large wallpaper-like blowups of select images that scale the two-story vertical walls of the voluminous East Gallery. Perhaps to further occupy the formidable space, framed pictures are sometimes stacked salon style as many as six high—from knee-level to twelve or more feet overhead—producing a sense of awe, or frustration, depending on your point of view (and eyesight). The appeal of this approach depends largely on whether you favor the neck-craning spectacle of seventeenth century Paris Salons, or the contemplative centerline unfussiness more common today.

Numerous display cases supporting Jackson’s professional and personal achievements exhibit books, business cards, prisoner shivs (more on this later), medals, more photographs, and Jackson’s resumé.

A good part of Being There consists of photographs that, much like Holbein’s portraits, document people Jackson has known or met, from celebrities (politicians, writers, orchestra conductors, media personalities, musicians, artists, and so on) to assorted colorful characters (Road Vultures’ gang members, guitar strumming law officers, and backyard skinny dippers). Many of these are displayed—non-chronologically and unframed—in grid fashion filling large horizontal sections of gray-demarcated wall. Some of the pictures are black and white, some color, all with white borders that call to mind the family pictures stashed away in shoeboxes in many a grandmother’s closet.

Jackson’s images are thoughtfully composed while still echoing the unposed snapshot aesthetics of American documentary photographer Robert Frank, whose influence is evident, especially throughout Jackson’s early work. Clustered labeling on the ends of these gridded groupings can be frustrating to follow (labeling was spotty and confusing throughout the show the week it opened). Quite a few of the images will be familiar to those who, like Jackson, have spent the greater part of their lives in Buffalo. Labels might be beside the point anyway. These are best viewed holistically as impressionistic patchworks cobbled from dozens of frozen moments of temporal human existence.

Like Holbein, Jackson documents the political and social turmoil of his times. Unlike Holbein, who had to slip his commentary into paintings with discreet symbolism, Jackson addresses his issues with head-on sincerity. It’s the advantage to coming of age at the dawn of America’s counterculture revolution rather than in England under Henry VIII.

Jackson’s extensive record of life in Texas and Arkansas prisons in the 1970s, including death row, reflects established traditions of social documentary photography. Presumably, this is where the shivs in the display cases came from; the documentarian was granted unprecedented access and cooperation from authorities inside the facilities. This work is among Jackson’s best, an affecting account of institutionalized dehumanization and despair behind bars.

The portraits of death row inmates, with their dates of eventual execution printed on the labels, capture the desperation of men whose primary activity is waiting. In such works as Shoes During Strip Search After Coming from the Fields, Jackson displays an eye for nuanced detail. Leatherwork shoes are the center focus, but a human foot edges into the frame, endowing the image with added complexity and humanity. Jackson’s recordings of prison work songs provide a continuous audio soundtrack for these photos, a nice touch.

The photographer’s appetite for documenting his environment and important events extends to the University at Buffalo student riots and other protests of the late sixties and early seventies. Most touching are Jackson’s photographs of impromptu memorials and “missing person” flyers in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ray’s Famous Pizza, West 12th Street off 6th Avenue, captures a man with a baby stroller viewing an expansive wall of flyers under Ray’s red canopy. It’s a heartbreaking study of futile hope.

Buffalo’s waterfront with its abundance of decaying post-industrial structures has provided fertile ground for countless photographers. Jackson documents the usual suspects: aging and abandoned buildings, Buffalo’s bridges, the Skyway, and, of course, the grain elevators. Photographing Buffalo’s grain elevators is almost a cottage industry in itself around these parts, but Jackson’s images are among the genre’s best.

Some of this work falls under the heading of what’s been dryly dubbed “ruin porn,” wistful images fetishizing urban decay. Perot Malting Elevator and Perot Elevator, with its peeling paint and motionless emptiness, is a darkly picturesque depiction of postindustrial nostalgia. At other times, Jackson focuses primarily on formal properties as with Marine A Grain Elevator, an austere view down a warmly lit concrete corridor. Jackson’s external grain elevator views largely adhere to time-honored formalist conventions, while setting new benchmarks for technical quality.

Across the bottom of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors is an odd-looking diagonal slash. This, it turns out, is an anamorphic rendering of a skull that can be properly seen only when viewed from an extreme oblique angle.

The skull is widely considered by art historians to be a memento mori or vanitas, a reminder of the inevitability of death and the ephemerality of earthly goods and achievements.

Here, Jackson and Holbein share another commonality. Whether documenting deathrow inmates, fading post-9/11 hopes, or reminding us of departed celebrities like Janis Joplin and friends like poet Robert Creeley, mortality is a theme running throughout Jackson’s work. The impermanence of architecture, urban disinvestment, the obsolescence of industrial structures, the transience of rebellion, all remind us that over time—as George Harrison once put it—all things must pass. “Being there” to document things while they’re still here is what Jackson does best.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, and frequent Spree contributor.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Buffalo Spree