Let's face it: if you need a 2D artwork that can endure extended exposure to sun, rain, wind, and "direct engagement" in various forms by wildlife, children, and the random flung object, you won't be calling on watercolors or drawings, and oil paintings will just laugh derisively if you ask them to stand around outside for more than a few hours at a time. No; unless you're looking for murals or street art, a photograph's your obvious choice for this mission.
Where other popular 2D media beg off right away, whining that being reproduced on vinyl mesh will dilute their "essential qualities" and diminish their ability to "connect with viewers," photography steps up. "Print me any time, on any surface, at any size," photography crows, "I'm infinitely reproducible! I'm the people's medium, I go where the people are!"
That versatility is surely a good thing, but walking along The Fence photography installation on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, I found myself wishing photography was a little more finicky and just a tiny bit less proud of its reputation as the "any surface, anywhere" medium.
The Fence was first put together in 2012 and displayed for ten weeks in New York's Brooklyn Bridge Park, where an estimated 1+ million people saw the 1000-foot installation. This year, The Fence's reach has been expanded, with two all-new, summer-long exhibitions in NYC and Boston. A few months ago, photographers of all levels were invited to submit work in series that fit into the broad 2013 competition categories Home, Streets, People, Creatures, and Play.
Boston's version of The Fence was curated by the Griffin Museum's Paula Tognarelli; Photographer and SMFA Professor Jim Dow; Eunice Hurd, Director of the Robert Klein Gallery; VII Photo Agency Founding Member Gary Knight; and The Magenta Foundation/Flash Forward Festival's Maryann Camilleri. Submissions were screened by a NYC jury, and from the resulting pool of nearly 1000 images, the Boston jury selected work by 18 photographers for the 450-foot Greenway installation. All of the work in the exhibition can be viewed online.
Much of the selected work looks great printed on the photographic mesh used for the exhibition. That's not to say other images fall apart visually -- the printing is beautifully done -- but in some cases, an image's content seems at odds with the airy quality of the surface it's printed on, and backlighting puts a chain-link shadow onto some of the images (yes, The Fence is mounted on a fence. What else?). No big deal, right? I mean, it's outside! Liberated from the dreaded white cube! I should lighten up. Still, I'd love to see prints of some of these photos without the interference introduced by the mechanics of the exhibition.
And speaking of outdoors, there's a lot of context to contend with out there. I asked Paula Tognarelli if the jurors knew, when they were choosing work, exactly where The Fence would be installed. She said they did know the site at that point, and that they "were sensitive to the location where the imagery would be placed." That sensitivity is apparent, and helps make a strong installation overall. That said, some of the images seem to be having uncomfortable conversations with their surroundings. Some of this work is 'close' and quiet; the 93N off-ramp just feet away, highway signage, even the tops of buildings, are irksome impositions. The Fence is a tremendous opportunity for artists to have their work seen by hundreds of thousands of people, but it's also a reminder that just because photography as a medium lends itself to being shown almost anywhere, that doesn't mean every photo wants to be a billboard.
At the end of the day, it's the work that matters, and the quality and depth of the photography selected for this exhibition is impressive. Looking at the submission categories earlier this year and not knowing who the jurors would be, I thought we could end up with a lot of innocuous, crowd-pleasing lifestyle photos: kids playing ball, dogs catching Frisbees in golden hour light, a vinyl parade of shiny happy people. Instead, The Fence gives Boston a substantial selection of work on a range of absorbing topics. All at a low, low admission fee ($0.00!).
The Fence is one of several exhibitions throughout the city organized as part of the Flash Forward Festival, which brings four days of free photography talks, exhibits and networking events to the Fairmont Battery Wharf, May 16-19, 2013.
The Fence will be on display on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, opposite Faneuil Hall's North Market (Clinton Street and North Market Street) through September 1, 2013.