Art: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
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In some of Peter Feresten’s more artful photos, the simple geometry of interior space achieves a surreal quality.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Let Us Now Praise Famous Fort Worthians

Photographer Peter Feresten would have us believe that poverty equals virtue — it doesn’t.

By ANTHONY MARIANI

Peter Feresten is a Fort Worth photographer who spent the majority of the late 1970s and early 1980s snapping pictures in and occasionally extracting art from the South Side’s impoverished African-American communities. Many of these photos — mostly black-and-whites of church buildings, congregations, and celebrants — are hanging in the huge lobby of the downtown branch of the Fort Worth Public Library, where they’ll be until April 30. The highly public, non-commercialized setting is appropriate. What Feresten does is equate poverty with virtue. The exhibit is kind of like a bizarro version of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a landmark literary document in which the simple life doesn’t look so simple, let alone virtuous, let alone capable of being transcended via a “Hail Mary” or fiery sermon.
Photographers are tricky. If a painter renders an image of an emaciated child, a viewer is probably going to concentrate more on the way in which the child is painted rather than the thought of starvation. But a photograph of an emaciated child? Worth a thousand words, right?
Photographers, like advocacy journalists, can sometimes ignore certain facts and heighten others, ones that bolster the photographer/journalist’s bias. And Feresten is undoubtedly biased. Based on his artist’s statement and a supplemental explanatory writing, both blown up in size and hung among the photos, Feresten is, with these images, not only trying to glorify downtrodden souls but use them to show us how materialist we American dogs are. He’s concerned that we’re too caught up in aspiring to “Madison Avenue’s standards.” Madison Avenue — how quaint! (To show you how anachronistic Feresten and his entirely humanist, entirely admirable perspective are, most of New York City’s major advertising companies decamped from Madison Avenue years ago.) Isn’t everyone in the West a slave to consumerism? Ever hear of “bling-bling” or “ghetto fabulousness”?
The African-American experience in Fort Worth, as seen through Feresten’s lens 20 years ago, was made of equal parts survival in the face of despair and unadulterated joy in spiritual transcendence. Ever the industrious artful photog, Feresten becomes his subjects. Their physical displays of emotion are utterly guileless. The laughter in a chubby girl’s mouth, the rapture in the faces of the prayerful, the fire and brimstone on the tongues of the preachers — all of these images are both true and full of truth. No subject ever looks any less than a million bucks.
Since the photographer straddles the line between personal artistic vision and a fetishistic type of advocacy journalism, his photos of empty spaces thus sing a bit more clearly than his portraits and candids. By simply framing certain portions of buildings in certain ways, Feresten is able to achieve a sort of geometric surrealism. In one particular church, the interplay of white interior walls’ angles — all crevices and corners, streaked by occasional shadows — is nearly modernist in its arid intellectualism. It’s fantastic, a far cry from a shot of a landscape on which a church crumbles on one side and the Fort Worth skyline looms on the other; through the middle along a stretch of asphalt are two “Wrong Way” street signs — how heavy-handed can you get?
While the content of Feresten’s work may be debatable, his form isn’t. Feresten is a master technician, on par with some of the trade’s most lauded purveyors, including Diane Arbus and Gordon Parks. With the exception of some gratuitous, hammy extended-exposure shots (ones in which people are reduced to mere wisps of visages) and a few color portraits, most of the photos on display reveal a deft hand. In many of Feresten’s people-less shots, one portion or spot usually glows white hot while another burns in deep, inky shadows. The juxtaposition is marvelous and perfectly apropos to people and places consumed with the idea of the triumph of light over dark, heaven over hell.
All of the photos are conventionally scaled — not too small, not too big — lending each an immediacy that’s germane to the photographer’s intent, which is to proselytize to as many ears (and eyes) as possible.
A major tenet of socially conscious art is that the social consciousness doesn’t begin and end with the artwork; it carries on well after the paint has dried or, in this case, the film has been developed. Though syrupy with Feresten’s writings about his intentions, the exhibit stops short of saying whether Feresten’s documentary-style art has led to any positive, pragmatic, real results. (The photographer has often been quoted saying that of his favorite Southside haunts none still exist.) Looking around Fort Worth today, rampant with the dispossession of minority communities by big-shot developers, a pessimist could make the argument that no one is listening to — or viewing — Peter Feresten.
At one point in one of Feresten’s writings, the photographer says, well, he’s happy that one person gets some satisfaction from the historical content of these photos — himself. And why not? Who else is Feresten — or any artist — really capable of speaking for? His goal is clear, to savor moments of experiential ephemera as the skyscraper of cultural imperialism is erected in his backyard. Feresten can certainly wring beauty from the ugliness of poverty; but the more important question is, can he also reveal the ugliness in the beauty of progress? In other words, he can make a dilapidated church look like heaven. Could Peter Feresten make one of Cowtown’s skyscrapers look like hell?


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