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Gene Witkowski Photography in Artvoice

Friday, August 22, 2014

Gene Witkowski Photography at Burchfield Penney Contemporary Art Center and Starlight Studio and Art Gallery by Patricia Pendleton

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Men at Work
Two exhibitions highlight the striking digital prints of Gene Witkowski. He served as a photographer in the Air Force during the late 1960s in Thailand and later worked closely with Milton Rogovin in Buffalo. Witkowski documents the Neglia Ballet and Irish Classical Theatre Company, but he is best known for his crisp portrayals of post-industrial sites around the Buffalo waterfront.

The camera has become an everyday tool, an instantaneous medium of exchange in the 21st century, but we typically experience a stream of imagery, rarely slowing down to look at one for very long. As the moving image gains popularity, it is a good time to consider the still image taken with a camera rather than a phone. An early pioneer of the medium, Dorothea Lange, explained: “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” The quiet still image that requires the patience to look, not glance. Visit the Collection Study Gallery at Burchfield Penney to ponder At the Waterfront, a dozen of the artist’s color prints. The steel and concrete of these scenes are populated with hardhats, cranes, shovels, tugboats, and freighters. He captures a sober look at laboring on land and water, a workplace that has become foreign to most of our generation. I am struck by the dominance of red, green, and gray—unlike the qaua and blue hues found in pleasure boating. The Last Dance stops the moment when the last bit of grain was scooped up in 2003 in just the same way as it had been since the 1920s before the new “self-loading” trucks were brought in. Witkowski’s Obsolete marks the end of an era for Irish-American working class men toiling as grain “scoopers.”

Starlight hosts Some Little Planets and Waterfront Photos. The main gallery is an extension of the silos, freighters, and last day of the man-powered scooping. While most of his shots of workers appear to be candidly taken from a distance, others are straight-on posed portraits. The photographs show a workplace of men and industrial landscape. The pristine views of the waterfront are almost sacred in their presentation as a place of strength and calm. Ships are viewed as bodies that come and go, such as The Arrival of the Herbert Jackson and Departure of Saginaw.

Off to the side of the main gallery is a smaller room devoted to seven new 360 degree panoramas. While the artist switched from film to digital photography in the early 2000s, these images utilize a greater amount of digital manipulation. The artist pushes his imagery to a new place with an effect that mimics a wide angle lens.The circular and irregularly-shaped forms suggest a bit of fantasy akin to Alice through the looking glass. Witkowski’s “Little Planets” are a refreshing new direction full of playfulness not seen in the earlier work. Familiar places such as the Botanical Gardens, Silo City, and Richardson complex are seen in new ways. Look into the golden sun against blue sky center with the spires of St. Louis Church circling around. These curious new works have a quality reminiscent of totem, talisman, or mandala.

There has been an abundance of attention on the Buffalo waterfront in recent years as a resurgence is underway. Some may wonder what all the fuss is about. Gene Witkowski’s photographs tell a story of labor. Once the largest grain port in the world, Buffalo’s legacy as the industrial heartland of North America remains an important heritage. These selections of work contribute a moving reminder that the changing port remains alive and active.

The Burchfield show runs through October 26 and Starlight closes September 19.