San Francisco Zoo, 2005 © John Rosenthal
Looking In, Looking Out
photographs by John Rosenthal
Preview days: March 5 - 12, 2010
Opening reception: Saturday, March 13, 7 - 9 PM,
with a talk by the artist at 8 PM
On display through April 17, 2010
For most of my career I made photographs using black-and-white film. I liked the compositional demands of black-and-white—for without a composition, an architecture to hold the image together, a black-and-white photograph falls apart. Looking at the world in shades of gray is to limit yourself—to risk doing without the simple pleasure of seeing colors. But color can fool you. It offers the pleasure of itself, but sometimes that’s a light pleasure. I like the challenge of black-and-white because all one possesses is an image, and, if the image is trivial, if its internal tensions are slack, you can’t interest a viewer for long. For years I used only 35mm Tri-X film—the grain pleased me; there was nothing slick about it. I didn’t want my photographs to advertise their subjects beautifully, but to create a pause, or a puzzlement.
In 2007 however I began to work with color film and to print my photographs digitally. For awhile I resisted the idea of digital printing, but I soon realized that working with a good file was the best way to honor the complexity of a negative. Suddenly, instead of printing for 30-60 seconds, I could spend a day working with every part of a photograph. And I began to photograph in color because my subject at the time, the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, required it. Katrina had flooded the neighborhood, wiped it out, and driven its inhabitants elsewhere. Black-and-white photographs would have emphasized the grim physical reality of the Ninth Ward—but that wasn’t my intention. I wanted to capture the actual loved space that had been abandoned, a working-class neighborhood in which color often functioned as a bright antidote to economic scarcity.
Of course in the long run what matters is the photograph itself, not its color. Does it tell the truth, or does it sentimentalize? Does it come from a place where I’m still fresh, or am I repeating myself? Am I photographing the exotic for its own sake, or am I capturing an actual beauty that resides in the ordinary? These questions are important to me—and, if I make a photograph that both compels and pleases me, then, for awhile at least, I’ve offered some kind of answer.