This American Lens
Photographers explore the modern experience in distinct ways
by Leona Baker
Veer Magazine 04/15/10

Two recently opened photography shows, one a major exhibit by an established contemporary American portraitist and another a gallery offering by a talented emerging artist and Hampton Roads native, have some striking similarities; both, for example, are blatant rejections of the smiley affectations and unrepresentative beauty of mainstream commercial portraiture. But they are also quite different.

In his latest work, Hampton Roads native Jason Hanasik has created not so much a collection of pictures as a visual conversation between an artist and his subjects.

In this case his primary subjects are Marines, two brothers with whom Hanasik has had long and evolving personal relationships. One of the brothers, Steven, figures most prominently in a show called, He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore, which continues at Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery in Norfolk through May 29.

Hanasik gained attention locally when his work was presented in a striking solo show called Family Matters at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia in 2005. He returns to Virginia having completed graduate studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Issues of sexuality have played a key role in Hanasik’s previous work and again in these images there exists an uneasy, ambiguous interplay of eroticism and gender dynamics offset by the conflict between personal turmoil and the sense of public duty that is often part of life in the military. Hanasik’s concern for the “precepts of masculinity,” in particular, color these pictures as he explores the various roles men play in living up to society’s expectations of manly behavior.

One of the signature images of the show is of Steven lying belly-down in a field of flowers dressed in fatigues, his cap tilted down over his eyes and his hands folded into a prayer position. It’s easy to read the image as purely homoerotic, particularly taken out of context of the rest of the pictures, which came together by a process Hanasik refers to as “something akin to Frankensteining- building a narrative out of multiple experiences.”

In that narrative, Hanasik functions as a therapist of sorts for these men whose lives at home and in the theater that is modern warfare are marked by sacrifice and loss. Included in He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore are a few images taken by Steven while he was on tour in Iraq, an attempt by Hanasik to “share authorship” of this particular visual narrative and to shift the dynamic between documentarian and subject transferring power to the subject.

Along with the photographs in the show there is a silent video that plays on a continuous loop on one wall. It features two male soldiers in uniform on a balcony. They are dancing together in a sort of stylized slow-motion waltz in an apparent moment of levity which again plays into a sense of enigmatic eroticism mixed with heroism.

Environment is an important part of Hanasik’s world. Often his human subjects appear about to be consumed by their surroundings as in one night portrait of Steven in which he is practically engulfed by a snow-covered tree. This show also includes several landscapes and interiors, which though they are devoid of human subjects, seem every bit a part of their narrative.

By contrast, the work of renowned portraitist Dawoud Bey on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art through August 6, uses environment as a minimal backdrop for tightly cropped images of people staring deliberately into his camera lens.

The show is called Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey and is the result of five years of traveling across the country photographing teenage students of all social and economic backgrounds. The word “class” in the title is clearly a double entendre referring not just to the fact that the subjects are students but to their various socioeconomic statuses, whether real or perceived.

The format of the pictures varies little. Most of the students are seen from the torso up with their elbows resting on a desk or table or stack oof books. Along with each picture is a commentary offered by the student. One student speaks of his difficulties following his father’s incarceration when he was a young boy. Another can’t help but wonder, against his better judgment, how other students perceive him because he is a Muslim. One is a young mother. Another is a cancer survivor. Others are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants. Many share their passions for everything from music and dance to books and sports.

The photographs themselves are highly controlled but beautiful, unflinching documentations of vulnerable human beings stuck in that turbulent chasm between teenage angst and real world adult problems.

There are 40 large scale images in all offering a broad spectrum of modern American youth.