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Light's Out

Current location closes with worthy show

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The Light Factory's final exhibit at its current Hill Street location features Byron Baldwin: The First Thirty Years and Simmons Jones: The New York Years. There are several ink jet prints in each show, but most of the photographs are black and white silver gelatin prints. Baldwin's subject matter draws from visits to Cuba, Prague and London, as well as landscape, portrait, still life and genre. Jones' subject matter is drawn from the New York fashion world of the 1960s and 70s.Simmons Jones was born in Charlotte just prior to the Great Depression. He studied photography under Alexei Brodovitch in New York City in the 1950s and spent the early 70s in Rome as a leading fashion photographer for Vogue, Gentlemen's Quarterly, and other fashion-forward publications of the day.

Fashion photography is all about show and the ability of the image to project and sell a look. It concentrates on the highly contrived and stylized rather than the idea of capturing the moment (as in straight photography). Though fashion photography often approaches art, the goal is still to create an illusion so effective that the viewer has no other choice than to consume the product, the look, the fashion.

The portrait of "Antonia with Cigar" creates the look of an aloof, sophisticated European beauty. Antonia holds a lit cigar between two fingers so gracefully it becomes part of her well-manicured hands. Her gaze -- detached, disinterested -- looks directly at the camera. The use of black is especially effective in this photograph, in foregrounding both Antonia and her expressive hands.

Other photographs by Jones, such as "Golden Girl," "Pauline," and "Verushka," capture the energy and rhythms of the 60s and 70s, and of the cult of celebrity, reminding me of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and the Velvet Underground. The photograph "Poor Little Rich Girl" and the "Perfume Ad for Gentlemen's Quarterly" both showcase Jones' talent in working with light. Both are stunning explorations of smooth and hard textures -- the former with fur, the latter with glass.

Byron Baldwin has been a photographer and a photo educator in Charlotte for the past 30 years. A founding member of The Light Factory in 1973, he recently retired from teaching photography at Myers Park High School.Baldwin's photographs are notable for their composition, the way he uses light, and for the tonal quality that he achieves with black and white film. The photograph titled "Boats" (from the Prague series) is beautifully composed, with partial tree trunks framing a view of small white rowboats seen through and beneath the arching branches of an ornamental tree. The boats, the tree and the buildings across the lake are reflected in the water. The varied tones of the blacks against the grays enhance the dreamy quality of this meditative image of the manmade and nature reflected in water.

Other photographs in Baldwin's show feature a series from visits to Cuba, the 521 All Stars, Landscapes, Portraits and the Central Avenue series. In an interview with Baldwin about the Central/Plaza series of photographs, he told me that prior to beginning the series he had just read Larry McMurtry's book The Last Picture Show and had just purchased a book on Edward Hopper's art. The first picture in the series was The Plaza Theatre. As Baldwin stated, "Where do good pictures come from? ... good pictures don't come out of a vacuum ... books, images, stories allow us to see things we might not otherwise see ... It takes a lot to see a picture. Most of all, pictures come out of your head and not the camera. At the same time you have to remember that you don't think a good picture into existence ... with good pictures you must put intuition before intellect."

We also discussed the content of this series consisting of various Charlotte landmarks -- some still standing, some renovated and others extinct. Baldwin was driven by the structures and felt compelled to document them. These buildings -- the Dairy Queen, Krispy Kreme -- aren't the kind of architecture that gets listed or gets protected by the historic register, yet these are the places that we use, the places that we are comfortable with; they represent the fabric of our lives and because of this they're fragile in many ways. Baldwin told me that frequently when people see the Plaza Theatre photograph, they'll remark, "That's where I saw The Graduate," as if to say, "That marked a time in my life."

The photograph of The Dairy Queen on Central Avenue is one of the few "landmarks" that still exist from the series. Baldwin talked about this picture in terms of the influence that the Hopper book had on the series as well as to speak of the time it takes to make a good picture. He photographed The Dairy Queen at least 20 times before it was right. "In a good picture," he offered, "I'm looking at shape and arrangement and object placement, but the light is most important. The light drives everything in a picture ... if the light's not there, the picture's not there."

Though photographs appear objective, there's always a subjective aspect in their realization. If a photograph is good, there's always something in the final product that tells us as much about the person behind the camera as what is being photographed. Part of this has to do with the individual but it also has something to do with the way that a photo is made -- subject matter, framing, light, characteristics of the lens, chemical properties and darkroom decisions. The current pictures at The Light Factory are no exception. Where Byron Baldwin's images are quiet and restrained, Simmons Jones' images are energetic and showy. However, if the photographic works of this pair have anything in common, it's a fondness for their chosen subject matter. And that affection is made evident through the care in which their photographs are made and how their subjects are treated.

The exhibits Byron Baldwin: The First Thirty Years and Simmons Jones: The New York Years will be at The Light Factory through January 18, 2003. For more information about the exhibit and other related events, including a fashion fundraiser for the Light Factory called "15 Minutes," call (704) 333-9755.

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