Thursday, 26 September 2013

Donald Blank"s Photographs at Queen City Gallery

Buffalo 1967

I was not here then…in other cities but not here. But judging from these street shots, Buffalo could have been any of those—Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Chicago. The street scenes were much the same, especially the cultural signifiers of the time: Mature ladies wore hats with veils, gloves, and cloth coats; the men, suits, white shirts, thin ties, and stingy brims. Storefronts crammed everything they had to sell right up to the windows. Women wore cat’s-eye glasses and men used Brill Cream.

Donald Blank’s work is much like his name: There’s nothing to identify who, what, where in his photographs. Culled from negatives in storage for over 40 years, they were part of an assignment he did for a class he took in college back in the 1960s. Now they are a lyric archive to a penultimate juncture in the history of 20th-century American cities—22 years after World War II but before everything else.

In his photos, taken candidly with an SLR Pentax camera, one witnesses a time when the street was unremarkably public but at the same time understood to be a private space among one’s fellow pedestrians. In the 1950s and 1960s, photographers like Garry Winograd, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Milton Rogovin, along with Allen Funt’s stunts on TV’s Candid Camera, brought aggressively fresh eyes to the minutiae of street life in post-war American cities. Still photography especially captured the hard stares and bright laughter in the halted moments of ordinary people’s lives, bringing a striking clarity to the urban identity in images of as yet segregated peoples in the clutching act of want, need, and desire.

For long-time Buffalonians over the age of, say, 60—or what was known back in 1967 as the “younger generation”—these photos may provide clues to particular locations and possibly personal identity. Notwithstanding the snapshot immediacy of these downtown scenes, they remain unassuming portraits of urban people, clearly focused down to the texture and sheen of pre-fleece outerwear.

Blank’s exhibit continues at Queen City Gallery through October 10. See this week’s “The Back Page” to see more of his work.

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Donald Blank"s Photographs at Queen City Gallery

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