Recently I had an artist -- a very successful sculptor, actually-- sit me down and explain to me the loss of the ability to "do" in our society. Do you know how to make your grandmother's best meal? I don't either, but in the house in which I was raised, one set at the end of a dirt road in a tiny farming community, it was fried chicken and white gravy. Every Sunday morning my mother would make this southern delicacy, one she learned from my grandmother. The creation of the gravy, in particular, was a fine art. She had mastered it.
To this day I have never made that meal, and I am 37 years old.
And what about our grandfathers? Do you know how to change the oil in your car, build a piece of furniture, or -- other than yanking the chain a few times -- repair the toilet? Well, they do. The years they spent learning a craft, whether it be cooking, building, or fixing, we spent on our cell phones and computers, limiting our knowledge of art forms that empower us with the ability to take care of ourselves.
If we don't look to and understand our past, then how can we master our future? Well, it would seem that Dina Mitrani agrees. Through her show "Historic Process/Contemporary Visions," she is providing a rare opportunity for audiences in Miami to view a group of photographs that utilize lost techniques.
In it, contemporary artists explore alternative photographic processes, some more than 100 years old, and combine them with current topics and methods. It's a small exhibition whose precious pictures demand your time and contemplation; it's educational; and -- for lack of a better word -- it's lovely, due mostly to the sensitivity of its curator, Dina Mitrani.
In Hollywood Dreams (1999), Rafael Balcazar utilizes an old film reel as his still subject, one whose image fades from right to left. A figure that would normally lack dynamism takes on a life of its own due to the multitude of tones of black and white provided in his platinum print. By abandoning the standard gelatin-silver or digital process, one whose appearance lacks the visual complexity and density to hold the eye, Balcazar produces a picture that invites the viewer to study and stare. Black and white become a whole range of colors that your brain suddenly realizes it's been missing.
In a grouping of cyanotype photograms titled Party Dress Series, artist Heidi Kirkpatrick looks to an age-old photographic process, one that harkens back to the early 19th Century, to subtly illuminate contemporary issues encountered by women. Barbie doll dresses from her childhood leave ghostly reflections, captured in sunlight, of a little girl's playthings, ones destined to create a mental framework for idealistic notions of beauty.
Early photographers didn't need automatic focus or a digital printer, and often spent hours capturing a single image. What can we learn from them? Attention, tireless discipline, devotion, an intimate understanding of process.... At Mitrani Warehouse, these artists are smart enough to move into the future while incorporating valuable lessons and techniques from the past, enriching their work and enhancing their wisdom.
So maybe it's time we all followed suit, photocopying grandma's recipe box or face-timing with dad for a lesson under the hood. After all, knowledge is power. And when our parents and our parents' parents are gone, we don't want to be left with knowing how to see but not do.
-- Seanica Howe
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