Sasha Wolf characterizes the work of the photographers she represents as "post-documentary." What is this? Ms. Wolf explains the neologism as work inspired by the great 20th-century documentarians — Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, et al. — but shot in an era when the great venues and sponsors of documentary photography no longer exist. There is no weekly Life magazine being delivered to millions of American homes. There is no successor to Roy Stryker, the head of the Farm Security Administration, who sent out battalions of photographers to record the devastation of the Great Depression. Post-documentary photography maintains the traditions that inspire it, but is meant for museums, galleries, and collectors. The Sasha Wolf Gallery's current exhibition, "Peter Kayafas: Recent Photographs of America," is a good example.
The 22 black-and-white photographs taken in a dozen states during the last three years have a somewhat dated look. Nearly all were shot in rural or small-town America, and, of the two from San Francisco, only one has the appearance of anything like a big city. It is sensibility, not subject matter, that announces the contemporaneousness of these images. "Jackson, Mississippi" (2007) might be part of a "Life Goes to a County Fair" photo essay; there are thrilling rides and concession stands selling cotton candy, popcorn, candy apples, and pizza. But the picture is about the fairgoers, especially the four young teenage boys in front — the one on the left in particular — and they are not having the jolly time we would expect of Life-era fairgoers.
"Jackson, Mississippi" is one of the three pictures printed that is 24 inches by 36 inches (the others are all 16 inches by 20 inches), and it is one of Mr. Kayafas's most successful images because of the boy on the left. A good-looking child with regular features, freckles, and dark hair combed over his forehead, he wears a polo shirt, jeans, and an immaculately clean white cowboy hat. Although he looks like a country boy, his hat seems too immaculate to have seen any real farm work. He stands with his arms folded in front of him, the one hand we can see in a fist, and stares warily at the camera. The full lips of his mouth are set slightly down and his brows are slightly knit; he knows he is being photographed, yet has no inclination to smile. His look might be challenging the photographer, but at the same time he seems vulnerable. It is that combination that makes adolescence so miserable, and Mr. Kayafas's picture so compelling.
In more than half of the pictures, no people are visible, even though their presence is. "Columbus, Ohio" (2005) shows the front lawn of a suburban house. There is a bit of the street, curbing, and a storm drain, although no sidewalk, in the lower right corner. The contemporary-style home in the background is mostly hidden by a tree, but we can see the car, parked in the driveway, which makes sidewalks unnecessary. The picture is animated by the sprinkler in the middle of the lawn, one of the type that oscillates back and forth spraying a fan of water. The image says nothing explicitly, but a lot of sociology and environmental concerns can be unpacked from it. Although to all appearances a comfortable and pleasant neighborhood, the sort that Life's readers in its heyday would have aspired to, the orientation of Mr. Kayafas's picture to it is not as guileless as its straightforward, documentary style makes it seem.
Mr. Kayafas's talent for understatement takes a wry turn in several of his photographs. "Victor, Colorado" (2006) shows a gargantuan water tanker on a highway trailing a stream of water over a lifeless landscape. The tanker's cab is hidden so there is no driver in evidence, and it seems as if this awkward behemoth is self-propelled. In "Roswell, New Mexico" (2006), a highway billboard rising over some scrub advertises "UFO CRASH SITE," recalling another preoccupation of the distracted masses at mid-century. In "New Mexico" (2006), a weather-beaten sign on the open wooden gate to a dirt road reads, "Private Drive Stay Out." Next to it, a bigger, fresher, hand-painted sign reads, "This ain't the dammed lake road Stay Out."
Not all of Mr. Kayafas's landscapes are successful. "Mississippi" (2007) is field of cotton with little point or drama. "Nashville" (2005) is a picture of a horse farm in the sentimental mode of calendar art. But "Elephant Butte, New Mexico" (2006), another of the larger prints, works wonderfully. Beneath a high, cloud-filled Western sky, a river flows through an arid terrain. A Taurus trailer camper is parked on a bit of land that juts into the river. Where is the vehicle that tows the trailer? Where are the campers who drive the vehicle that tows the trailer? Do they not appreciate the grandeur of the scenery; did they leave the trailer there to go to the mall and shop or see a movie?
"East Texas" (2006), the third large print, is almost entirely an immense cloud bank, except for a small, single-engine, single-pilot airplane in the lower left corner. The silhouette might be that of a World War II P51 Mustang, but it is too small and delicate. It is a plane someone flies for a hobby, to be alone in the wide blue yonder, and the picture captures the thrill and the danger of flight.
The documentary tradition eschews artsy stylistic devices and abstract concepts in favor of a veristic simplicity; it's the default American aesthetic. Mr. Kayafas's work demonstrates that it is still serviceable. Ms. Wolf's advocacy of the post-documentary proves there is life after Life.
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