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Art Sat May 17 2014
I think we can all agree photography is not what it used to be, and that the appropriation of found photography as a practice can overstep the bounds of respect, creativity and artfulness pretty quickly. Recent cases of appropriating found photography — meaning using photos taken by other people as the core of your practice — although seemingly accepted in the wide world of fine art, has left a pretty distinct foul taste in my mouth. Polly Yates, a British artist currently living and working in Chicago, uses found photographs in a very distinct and interesting way. When I walked into Roman Susan Gallery to see Unhomely, I initially thought I was simply looking at old photographs that were grouped, mounted and framed but as I stepped closer it was so much more.
It is hard to say that what Polly does is not important to how we see the work when it is finished, but this work is not just simply a byproduct of her process. The process in a nutshell is that she cuts away the people in the photographs — but that is just the beginning. She will then inlay parts of other photos that she finds, which may be from the same location or ones that match or relate to the original. These inlaid photograph collages are ghostly and calm. I often came to think that her work honored those people and places that were, or were not as the case may be, in the photographs.
Polly, like me, is of an age where photographs were shared around the family in heavy booklets of plastic sleeves. That, as a child, is something that helped me define my surroundings. I saw that as being "adult," I also related it to "family," together there is a looking back to teach, laugh and reminisce. It should be said that today I do not own a photo album, so although that was such a universal experience when I was young, this is an experience that may not be had soon. I mention this as a side note because Polly's work is personal and sincere, possibly being drawn to family photos as she explores her place in the world today to what she thought it may be when she was a child.
Taking photographs also used to revolve almost exclusively around family, so there was respect and love that surrounded every photo. There was the idea that "I am going to take this picture of you so that I can remember you, or this moment in time" and that was a safe albeit vulnerable relationship to enter. And although times have definitely changed, Polly respects those relationships that revolved around the taking of the photograph. She labors over the details of each cut so that there is no tension at the point in which the two photos come together. Delicate and precise, these collages tell stories of time, space, relationship and loss.
She honors these photos and the entire history of photography, not fine art photography, not Ansel Adams or Jeff Wall but real history of photography, family photography.
Unhomely is up at Roman Susan Gallery, 1224 W. Loyola Ave., through May 24. The gallery is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 2 to 5pm, and Thursday from 5 to 8pm or by appointment.