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Friend Or Foe?

Mint photo exhibit leaves question unanswered

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In these times when student violence against fellow students frequently makes headlines, photographer Julie Moos' exhibit Friends and Enemies at the Mint Museum of Art is pretty scary. The photographer often took life-size color photos, cropped from the waist up, of standing student duos in the senior class at the private Altamont School in Birmingham, AL, where Moos, a former resident of Quebec and Massachusetts, lives.

In some of the photos, the students are friends and in others they're paired with someone they don't like, and Moos (pronounced like "rose") doesn't tell us which is which.

If you like to read books and see movies in which all the loose ends are tied up at the end, you might not like this exhibit. But if you like working puzzles and figuring out mysteries, head to the Mint.

This is an exhibit about subtlety, probably a new adjective to apply to teenagers. You have to look at their expressions, the distance they're standing from each other, their clothes and their posture to determine their positive or negative relationships.

"Anne and Bayley" looks like a photo of two sisters. Their lips have the same shape, their complexions have the same hue, and both of them have dark brown hair with blonde highlights.

While Bayley is very sophisticated and svelte, wearing an almost off-the-shoulder green sweater, Anne is slouching and trying to cover up her overweight body in a shapeless corduroy jacket. Bayley is affirming Anne, giving the girl her own space. Only in the slight pout in Bayley's lips is there any hint that she's unhappy here.

Not subtle at all is the portrait of "Michael." Courageously, he stands to the right of his photo wearing an athletic jersey emblazoned with a huge "4." No one is here for Michael. The student Moos asked to be photographed with him refused to show up.

"Will and Trae" is much harder to decipher. Will looks like a teenage Bill Gates, while Trae, with his punk puff of blonde hair and wearing his red, white and blue GOP t-shirt, looks like he might be a rock star who stumbled into the Republican Party. Trae looks counterculture, so the t-shirt is undoubtedly ironic.

In one of the pairings, you can almost hear the students speak. "Bleeker and Wrisley" look like sorority sisters -- but competitor sorority sisters, not really friends. You can almost hear Bleeker saying, "Look at me," and Wrisley interjecting, "No, look at me!"

Moos' work makes it very clear that high school girls are often more emotionally mature than boys of the same age. In "Thomas and Hugh," it's apparent from his facial expression that Thomas, wearing a black Polo shirt, is at peace with himself and his feelings. Hugh, however, wearing a gray t-shirt covered with the words "Can you be a hero?" carries hurt under his I-dare-you smirk.

An intriguing visual element of these photos is that for a few moments, due to the way they're lit, they look like photorealistic paintings. Moos' compositions, often using hip-looking subjects surrounded by negative space, seem inspired by New York figurative painter Alex Katz.

Also, these photographs have an affinity to print advertising and signage used to promote the sale of clothing to teens by retailers such as The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

In a telephone interview, the photographer said she only has one of her photographs from her entire body of work on display in her Birmingham home -- "Drew and Monica" from the Friends and Enemies series. Drew is a black student wearing a gray t-shirt, while Monica, in a burgundy colored blouse, has long blonde hair and seems a bit unsure of herself but not uncomfortable.

The real subject of Moos' Friends and Enemies photos is the viewer. During the three times I went to see the exhibit, I saw and heard two teenagers looking at the photos closely and talking about them in great detail, as well as a young elementary student say to his mother, "Which ones are friends and which ones are enemies?" Mother replied, "There's no way to tell." And an adult male who walked briskly through with his associates exclaimed, "What a waste of paper!"

Moos says the intention of her work is to ask the question, "Why don't people get along with each other?" As we try to figure out which student pairs are friends and enemies, in a lot of ways what we're really seeing at the Mint is how we judge each other.

Julie Moos' Friends and Enemies is on exhibit until December 7 at the Mint Museum, 2730 Randolph Rd.. Hours are Tuesdays from 10am to 10pm, Wednesdays-Saturdays from 10am to 5pm, and Sundays from 12noon until 5pm. For more information, call 704-337-2000 or visit www.mintmuseum.org.

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