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Photography in the Halls of Spangler.is it Art?

An insightful review of the works of artist Shiman Attie, as featured in the halls of Spangler.

Photography can sometimes be very difficult to look at and contemplate as a piece of art. Early in its development it served a very specific purpose. It relieved artists from the manual task of having to record historical events or paint family portraits in order for there to be visual and tangible documentation that such things existed. It also removed artistic bias, as a photograph was generally thought to be entirely objective.

Despite its obvious utilitarian advantages, today I find myself flip-flopping on the issue of whether photography can actually be defined as “art.” How can an image that is captured by a machine really be considered the same way as an image that is created by the artist’s hand and with the artist’s eye?

The truth boils down to a much more fundamental question: “What is actually art?”-a discussion of which would easily fill this entire issue. However, in the interest of time and space, I would instead point to works such as those by Shiman Attie to give us ample ammunition to tackle the issue of what a photographer can do to make his work engaging and spark a dialogue with an observer.

Located in the hallway on the way to the Spangler dinning room, two photographs hang on the wall with windows. Usually, I am in such a hurry to get to class that I often brush by them without a glance; however, the other day something made me stop to look closely at the details of the image and think about some of the meanings the artist was trying to convey.

Each of the photographs is made up of two different layers. One is a backdrop and depicts a street scene of urban decay. The precision of the photograph allows us to see the granular details of the gritty brick walls, smudged sidewalks and grimy windowpanes, which evoke an atmosphere of decomposition and neglect. It is so clear that it makes us feel we are actually there, and as a viewer we immediately have a connection and almost understanding of this place.

In Linienstrasse 137, ghostly images are superimposed on this backdrop, setting a haunting mood. Understanding the subject matter reveals an even deeper meaning. Steinstrasse 21 Berlin projects a pre-war Jewish street scene onto the backdrop, which is identified as the Alexanderplatz district in Berlin. By embracing this context, the photograph evolves into a powerful tool in identifying and retracing the lost memories of people victimized by the war. It is a way for us today to contemplate the hidden histories that are lost in cities and remember that, while time passes and streets fall apart, the past never changes.

Even though the act of taking a picture with a camera is a mechanical process, artists have found ways to manipulate the resulting images and insert their own messages in a persuasive way and evoke emotion from the viewer. Attie is just one of many artists who has used photography-a powerful tool-to achieve this.

October 10, 2006
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