The Triumph of Chance 

The photographers in "Selected Memories" replace conscious choice with random coincidence.

Picture-taking is usually about framing -- selecting what you want to remember, and excluding what you don't. But the four photographers featured in "Selected Memories" -- Janet M. Denninger, Gabriela Laz, P.G. Meier, and Nada Savic -- take different approaches, allowing elements of chance to infiltrate their framing or compositional techniques. A shared love of accident and coincidence runs through their work.

Laz, Meier, and Savic employ what seems at first almost a casual "snapshot" sensibility, giving you the feeling as you walk around the room of peeping at random into the lives of total strangers. There are hardly even any faces visible in their images -- just the backs of heads, anonymous legs, an arm here, a hip there -- nothing to give us an idea of who these people are, or what their relationship might be to us or to the photographers. And even though all four artists are Bay Area residents (all but Savic live in the East Bay), none of them infuse their work with a very specific sense of place. Their pictures are beautiful and seductive, but cloaked in ambiguity and sometimes even actual blurriness, obscuring both the subject and the artist's intentions.

Nada Savic carries this approach the farthest. All of her pictures are self-portraits: She sets up the camera to shoot automatically and then goes about her regular life on its stage. Some of her photographs look like they were probably shot in her San Francisco home, but it's hard to tell, and their titles ("Envy," "Hope," "Joy," "Solace," etc.) correspond only vaguely to the contents of the images they describe. Because she doesn't look through the viewfinder as she shoots and can't predict when the shutter will click, an entire roll of film will sometimes go by without a single usable result. And when she does capture something interesting, it's frequently some unexpected element, like a vase or a cat in the foreground, leaving what would conventionally be considered the real subject of the photograph in blurry shadows. Occasionally Savic's face looms large in front, with strangely dark and distorted features that create an uneasy mood. Is she confronting us, the viewer? Or should we take her MO at face value and imagine her gazing at her own reflection in the camera lens? So many of her other pictures seem so private, and even vulnerable -- a domestic kitchen routine, or a dark, huddled figure on a stairway -- that it's almost impossible to imagine Savic even being aware of her own camera, let alone mugging for it. Her willingness to make public the intimate moments of her ordinary life seems totally at odds with the persona she projects through most of her images.

Oakland's Gabriela Laz also photographs quiet moments -- fragments of everyday life that would probably be forgotten and lost if it wasn't for her camera. She does not appear in her own pictures, however; they all show apparent strangers in a variety of settings ranging from a set of lockers at De Anza High School to rural train tracks in Montana. A mood of quiet and loneliness hangs over her work. She often captures a lone figure in a large public space, evoking a physical presence but not an emotional one: a woman sitting quietly on a hotel balcony at night, for instance, or a couple caught kissing in a swimming pool in the fog. The figures seem small and obscure, and in the latter case it would be difficult even to spot them if it wasn't for the title. We might project some kind of dramatic scenario onto these people -- reading the pool scene as a clandestine rendezvous, or the woman on the balcony as a jilted lover -- but it's obvious that it's our own imaginings, rather than some actual pictorial clue, at work. Laz is careful always to pull back far enough from her subject to thwart an overly specific reading, and she completely effaces her own presence, leaving us utterly convinced that we are the ones playing voyeur, and that the photographer was never even there.

One image in particular jumps out from the rest. Titled "Protection," it's the view from the passenger's seat as the driver exits a car. Catholic iconography covers the dashboard and dangles from the rearview mirror, and the ashtray is almost overflowing. The picture has a lot going on compared to Laz's other images -- all kinds of crisply focused details, bright daylight, vivid colors, and even a close-up human presence, but overriding it all is still a persistent sense of anonymity. The saints, the cigarette butts, one androgynous arm, and a suburban street don't add up to anything conclusive about who this is, or what personalities or relationships are in play, or where it was taken. Surely Laz knows this person, since she's sitting in his or her car, but even here she bypasses emotional immediacy and personal specificity, emphasizing instead the mundane accessories of everyday life.

P.G. Meier favors three cities -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oaxaca, Mexico -- as photographic locations, but all his pictures have a distinctly Mexican theme that sometimes makes it difficult to tell where he took a particular shot. Like the other artists in this show, he evokes a distinct mood without revealing too much about his subjects; a woman's "Viva la Raza" cap, for instance, or a handheld image of the Virgin of Guadalupe are more about the accoutrements of a culture than about individual personalities. His most interesting contribution to the show is probably "Police Woman, San Francisco," a close-up of a black leather holster whose wearer has taped a tiny gold Immaculate Conception charm to the butt of her gun. The item clearly holds personal significance, injecting a bit of individuality into what we assume is otherwise a regulation uniform, but it's certainly not a unique item, nor one that reveals much about the bearer other than the fact that she's Catholic. The icon is on public display, but not entirely; its small size and blurriness suggest that Meier took this photo from some distance, probably because he, like most people, thought better of getting too invasively close to a cop's pistol holster.

Janet M. Denninger uses a more complex photographic process than the other three artists in the show. She's the only one who clearly works in the studio, and who manipulates her pictures in obvious ways after the film is developed. But despite the deliberateness of her technique, her finished images are in some ways the most enigmatic. She calls them "slide sandwiches": pictorial nudes overlaid with a textural transparency, creating the effect of a woman's flesh completely tattooed, or made entirely out of boulders, or crackling like the surface of a Renaissance painting. It's sexy and strange at the same time. We never see any faces -- just legs and arms and breasts and buttocks looming mysteriously out of a black background, looking like extreme-close-up excerpts from some lost Caravaggio or Rembrandt masterpiece, or in the case of the tattooed lady like a racy detail from a vintage circus poster. The women pose like conventional nudes, putting themselves on display for the delectation of the viewer, but Denninger's overlay method utterly subverts the traditional viewing experience of such pictures. The flesh in her pictures is so heavily decorated that it's barely recognizable as flesh. Instead, she imbues each body with attributes of another material entirely: the strength and durability of stone, or the handmade exoticism of a Turkish rug.


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