Another Washington by Paul Feinberg at the Katzen Arts Center/American University

Paul Feinberg: Another Washington

Paul Feinberg: Another Washington

I’m a little late to game here, as this exhibit closed October 25, but I’ll post this a bit tardily as I hope it will be instructive for those of us on the early curve of our exhibition history. From the verbage of the exhibit:

“Focusing on personal relationships and city life, both downtown and around town, Paul Feinberg’s photographic and prose portraits of Washington have been appearing in local magazines for over 35 years. Another Washington celebrates and preserves a vibrant, sometimes quirky, sometimes seamy, but always poignant Washington not seen in the tour books, with intimate looks at all kinds of Washingtonians and their neighborhood haunts and places of pleasure.”

I have to admit out of the three exhibits I was going to last week (Robt Bergman at the National Gallery, Yousuf Karsh at the Canadian Embassy, and this one) – this was the one that I was most looking forward to.  And this is exactly the reason why I never try to have preconceptions about anything.

I Street Social Club, 13th and I Street NW © Paul Feinberg

I Street Social Club, 13th and I Street NW © Paul Feinberg

The show started off auspiciously enough with some vintage looking b/w prints from scenes long gone in Washington.  The accompanying text offered names and locales, (sorry Robt. Bergman, you know I am a fan of this kind of info), but NO dates, and no process on the prints.  I mean if you are talking about a Washington GONE by wouldn’t it be pertinent to offer your viewers exactly WHEN we are talking about here.  I was left to assume that most of these black and whites were taken in the late 70’s and 80’s, because as I saw later the 90’s era prints asserted themselves much differently.

Loretta, Owner of Loretta's Weaving Shop, 13th and H St NW © Paul Feinberg

Loretta, Owner of Loretta's Weaving Shop, 13th and H St NW © Paul Feinberg

What I also appreciated about the text boxes were the background info and the quotes from the subjects.  Here:

In 1939, I started altering shirts for the downtown department stores. It cost 50 cents a shirt then, but now I have to charge $2.00. That first day, I got a bunch of orders and then had to drive up to Baltimore that night to buy a sewing machine because I didn’t have one. [this to me speaks to Baltimore’s dominance at that time since you couldn’t find a sewing machine in DC??? Did you check Craig’s List???]

I’ve done work for some famous people. I repaired a shawl for Mamie Eisenhower. . . . One Tuesday before Christmas, when I was piled up with work, a man came in with 15 shirts adn said his boss had to have them by Friday. There was no way I could promise that. I asked him, ‘Who does he think he is? The President of the United States?’ Well, that is just who it was. I didn’t do it though. I couldn’t see pushing my girls when they were already overworked. I gave him a date when I could have them ready and he accepted it.” [OK this again, WOULD NEVER happen today. #1 There is probably a highly compensated in house seamstress at the White House now who makes more than you and I combined and can retire with full pension in 15 years.  #2 Loretta would have taken the commission immediately so she could a) twitter it b)have a cool facebook update it and c) use that information in her next email promo/spam campaign. Aaah, here’s to innocence lost)].

National Roller Rink, Kalorama and 17th St NW © Paul Feinberg

National Roller Rink, Kalorama and 17th St NW © Paul Feinberg

Boy, I wish this scene above still existed.

Customers in Nightingale's Tatoo Parlor, 12th and I St NW © Paul Feinberg

Customers in Nightingale's Tatoo Parlor, 12th and I St NW © Paul Feinberg

What the show quickly devolved into however, was a helter-skelter melange of photos having to do with strippers, tattoo parlors and massage parlors.  The prints were mediocre, and I suspect that most of the process on the prints were inkjet created from bad scans. Also unfortunate was the harsh black borders around the color prints, an attempt to mimic the black and white, and the mats that looked like they were retro-fitted from last months show so that the print (with the dark rectangle around it) floated in a sea of white inkjet paper before reaching the mat.

Billie Jo in front of Dolly's © Paul Feinberg

Billie Jo in front of Dolly's © Paul Feinberg

Then, just when you thought Another Washington meant another stripper/tatoo parlor/masseur you are confronted with these large color 90’s era portraits which I am assuming were culled from the photographer’s work for The Washingtonian Magazine.  And these, also inexplicably were sometimes blown up huge and mounted, matless, so that no rhyme nor reason prevailed in the installation. (I have not included examples here, but you can get a rough idea in the installation shots below).

feinberg07

© Paul Feinberg

For me, this was the most successful portion of the installation, a series of storefronts, but I have to say, these could be there today, this is not another Washington. But what it did have was a unifying vision, cohesiveness, simplicity in installation.

feinberg06

© Paul Feinberg

© Paul Feinberg

All in all, it was quite jarring to go from these black and white images, some sweet, but more documentary in feel to sort of 90s era celebrity portraits, which also felt dated, but not in a good way, and then the printing was not so hot . . . which i can dismiss if the moment is there . . .

I didn’t realize till afterwards that the preponderance of stripper images were because the photographer was taking photos around the area of what became Metro Center which changed over ten years from a seedy area to a more touristy/commercial area, this was not explained in any of the texts leaving the viewer no other recourse than to surmise that Paul Feinberg had a thing for a good lap dance. I approached the docent after viewing the show, because I was curious what the vision was all about, and she kindly explained the reason cited above.

I think the moral of the story is that when assembling any show or career retrospective you cannot do a “Greatest Hits” but there must be some kind of unity.  Also presentation is key.  Yes, I am more critical, but a good presentation will elevate the show for even the most naive of viewers, though they might not be able to pinpoint why.  I recall seeing a Paul Strand exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, many, many moons ago.  And it was my experience, looking at a print, “To the Sugarhouse,” I was entranced, but I had no idea why. Now, I realize it was the tonality, detail, the organic scene he photographed – I had no idea what, but it was a living presence for me in that room. I was so taken in that it eventually led me to pursuing photography . . . so there is no end to what goodness a well-done exhibit might wreak ; )

I have to say that I am quite disappointed by the Katzen’s offering here. They have a great venue (if off the beaten path, but that is not their fault) and the opportunity to host great exhibitions.   Well, God knows I’ve made every mistake I cite here before, (though in much lesser venues!), and it’s a learning experience.  Let’s take the lesson here.

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