Bob Poe’s Moments of Truth
Poetry arrived in search of me.
Bob Poe’s photographs consist of a series of portraits that feature the eyes of a particular model, if model is the proper term. Co-conspirator, perhaps. Taken with his iPhone camera, these images embody the spontaneity of a Polaroid snapshot and the social networking capabilities of a site like Facebook. The person photographed is less a party to a staged sitting than a participant in an informal public gathering. These images may or may not be interconnected. By evidence of the photos alone, we can’t determine whether the people know each other (friends, relatives, strangers), whether the shots were snapped in the same space at the same time. Nor do we know why these particular people were chosen. But they all affirm the suspicion that the method of constructing a contemporary photographic portrait in a digital age lies less in formal and time consuming processes of creating, choosing from, and perhaps retouching a multitude of staged images, and more in affirming the essence of the offered moment with faith in a single unposed shot. Because each image appears out of nowhere and then hovers in the pictorial space like the lingering grin of a disembodied Cheshire Cat, the exhibition carries profound implications as to the application of current thinking on psychology and perception to the creation and viewing of art, a point nicely articulated in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.”
Gladwell suggests that via “thin-slicing” we can ascertain the essence of and formulate conclusions to things through the use of limited information about the thing itself. He contends – and various experts have agreed – that people make better decisions with snap decisions than with analysis of reams of information. The irony in perfect: Gladwell posits – and who can deny it? – that we live in an age of information overload. Poe’s own iPhone, in theory, contributes in no small part to this overload. Turning Marshall McLuhan’s axiom on its head, the show demonstrates that the message is the medium.
The simple, unadorned compositions of Poe’s photographs can be likened to those taken at amusement park photo booths: unrehearsed, spontaneous, existing in a particular, unplanned moment. Each photo seems to be un-retouched or otherwise modified; each offers a trove of data. If his intent is to capture and refine something intrinsic about the subject, then his challenge is to sift through all available visual data and focus on that which is most relevant. In Poe’s case, it’s the eyes. There’s evidence of eye shadow and mascara. It’s obvious that the model is either young or old. Sometimes hair color can be discerned. Each has a particular eye color. Slightly more ambiguous are the emotions each image posits: eager, yearning, inquisitive, wary, knowing, and flirty. The painterly effects when the small digital images are blown up and mounted are nothing short of spectacular.
But Poe’s compositions are not as uncomplicated as they may seem. The models’ reactions may be natural and casual but their context and setting suggest a drama of imminence. Because the model doesn’t have time to affect a studied pose – to become a poseur – her reactions are natural and casual but also suggest an anticipating what-next? quality. This anticipation and imminence provide a magnificently dense web from which identity and meaning can be woven. Each model is a verb predicated in the future tense. Unlike painted portraits by, for instance, Alberto Giacometti, which capture the sitter’s essence and then immortalizes it like a butterfly pinned to a specimen board, Poe’s photographs capture this essence the moment before it crystallizes, before the sitter has had the opportunity to think about the artistic exchange about to be transacted. The result is a series of images that reverberate with a perpetual state of almost-being-there.
Based on the flux of a given moment, the narrative of Poe’s photographs is ongoing and unresolved. In poetic terms it references Keats’s expression “awake forever in a sweet unrest.” The strength behind his intriguing use of his iPhone’s camera lies in his ability to articulate – and then extend indefinitely into the future – the moment just prior to arriving at something essential, profound and significant.