Looking at Lowell Handler's The Vanishing: Photographs from a Small Midwestern Town, currently on display at Through This Lens, one appreciates the documentary photograph's sociological value. The work focuses on one declining hamlet, Madison, Mo. Housing a current population of 518, down from the 586 reported in the census of 2000, Madison proves to be a visually intriguing case study of the economically depressed Midwestern town.
Handler, the photojournalist author of Twitch & Shout: A Touretter's Tale (Penguin 1998), approaches his subject with the straightforward clarity of vision often employed by American photographers exploring economic decimation. His 35 mm and square format Hasselblad images are quiet, understated and, given the subject matter, likely to recall the iconic Depression-era photography of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others.
In the portraits included, there's a tangible distance between the subject and photographer—a distance that is similar to what is seen in Evans' seminal work. It is as though each participating member is guarded and acutely aware of the socioeconomic framework they operate within. Handler has apparently photographed the residents of Madison in semi-candid situations, and there's a sense that the camera is not always altogether welcome. There's an adage that photographs are taken, not given, and we see this subtly demonstrated in many of the faces in The Vanishing—especially the pensive elderly ones in "Woman at Screen Door, Madison, MO" (2001) and "Can Collector, Madison, MO" (1999).
The morphing small town is perhaps a quintessentially American phenomenon. How many of those who have left their hometowns bemoan how unrecognizable their old stomping grounds have become? Whether it's because of suburbanization and the accompanying development of the hideous and ubiquitous strip mall, or the withering of places like Madison due to changes in the industrial and farming economies and the general Wal-Martization of the country's retail outlets, there are few American small towns that would be familiar to the mid-century resident. Quite possibly, considering that its current population is barely more than half what it was in 1900, Madison will not exist in another half-century, and Handler's photography might not be seen as documentation of a community in crisis, but as a requiem.
Also on display at Through This Lens is Attitudes, a selection of limited edition serigraphs by the photographer's father, Murry Handler. Reproducing the elder Handler's minimalist figure paintings, the serigraphs create whimsical gestures of static pantomime—quite a departure from Lowell's detail-laden photographs, which seem overly grim and granite-like in proximity to such airy fare.
The two exhibits—and they should be considered two despite the gallery's overarching banner "Father & Son: Creativity Across Two Generations" —have no thematic or aesthetic connections. It's unfortunate that Through This Lens has jumbled the two artists' work together in an apparent attempt to more effectively utilize their modestly sized gallery. The two exhibitions deserve breathing space, and, frankly, to use a tainted word, segregation. The younger Handler has gone to much trouble to craft a convincing portrait of a dying town, and, given proper treatment, the collective effect could potentially radiate considerable ambiance. Of course, Handler's photographs aren't "pretty pictures," and, perhaps, we should ask if Through This Lens included Attitudes simply because they're hoping to sell the painting reproductions to those requiring artwork less dour in nature. At present, the gallery feels rather like a print clearing house. By using modular partitions—or simply limiting the exhibition to one artist—Through This Lens could have more successfully fashioned a space suitable for the absorption of image and idea.
Father & Son: Creativity Across Two Generations is on display through Feb. 12. For more information, call 687-0250 or visit www.throughthislens.com.