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Tech Photo Gallery

Capturing the Art of Ordinary Events

By Wally Holland

The air conditioner in the Wiesner Art Gallery rattles noisily and the concert band is rehearsing somewhere nearby and a problem set is being completed in the black-leather comfort of the Stratton Lounge, so there’s no way to take in the photographs in silence. The urge is there: to take deep slow breaths and mouth the word “lovely” or the word “remember.” Something about a gallery setting seems to demand rapt attention, a kind of strictly-enforced seriousness handed down from somewhere above.

There is real beauty here, clarity and honesty and motion: a photo of Ralph Nader draws your gaze in a narrowing spiral to meet his eyes, dark and intense; a baseball player caught on film becomes a steel spring, a whirl of unwinding noisy color; a student’s profile flickers in and out of sight, outlined in slow half-light, hardly there at all.

What else to say, really? How does a person -- much less a fearsome, fallible newspaper critic -- evaluate this work, this atmosphere? There are memories of a past year here, to be sure. Fragments of a story are told, caught in a flash, a fraction of a second -- moments which define events which, set beside one another, form a narrative. And yet these are news photographs, only ‘noteworthy’ events, names which feel removed from us by virtue of their familiarity. More engaging are the nearby sports photographs, the arts photos: capturing a more consumed motion, rescuing remembered performances from the past. The detachment of viewing Big Events through a lens is, curiously, transformed into intimacy when the events are as simple as a soccer match, a stage play, a dance.

The setting begs critical commentary, and resists it: it seems easier to sink into reverie, to chatter about this or that moment last year. The pictures are props and starting points. Some photographs fail, though it’s unclear why: perhaps they’re forcing a viewpoint onto the moments they seek to capture, rather than letting the moments dictate their own memories. Some seem contrived, others succeed through contrivance; one photo elicits a sigh and its neighbor a derisive laugh. The Tech Gallery is largely a collection of art photos, self-consciously separate from the news photos and attaining a strange aloofness as a result. The exhibit doesn’t whirl through a spectrum; it is posted in chapter -- like a newspaper. If anything, the gallery reminds you of a daily paper’s function: to report facts, not feelings. The posed Tech Gallery photos stand uncomfortably apart as a result.

But it’s no matter: an effect is achieved, a journey is taken. The Tech’s photography exhibit shows MIT life through a certain lens, that of the news photographer, and calls forth memories and understanding of a kind. It is a creation, a try at art even, and is owed a certain respect, a visit -- even if silence is nowhere to be found. These photos are to be seen with the noise of daily life around them: the sound of their creation.