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Shades of Gray: Photography at the Gray Loft Gallery, Dec. 2022

Updated: Dec 23, 2022


After turning twice up the narrow stairway, a type exactly halfway between rustic and industrial chic, one enters the Gray Loft gallery on Oakland's Ford Street, a space rewardingly larger than it first appears to be.

The first thing that registers is the excellent wall-by-wall grouping of the types of images – so successful in that task that it almost seems the photographs were made-to-order for the show. It is the 10th Anniversary celebration show for the gallery, and it is focused on black and white photography but it has a wide enough view to include some others.

The unity theme goes strong. It is assertively pressed by the spare black frames keeping each of the art works set on their space against the white walls. Scanning the rooms from a distance reinforces that after ten years, the group of artists is not just those who "made the cut" but all members of the same community.

In the crowd at the opening, there had been just as many of the artists there, talking to each other, as there were visitors, which included family. Having the smiles and shoulders and wide range of comfort clothes for cocktails all together finally post-COVID fear, it was still more like a homecoming.

Now, a couple of weeks after that event, there will be far more floor and sightlines visible. And what will be remembered quickly from the opening is that the collection on the walls is dominated not just by ideas about black and white imaging, but about printmaking. Label after label finely articulates the attention to craft, to whether the black or gray was conveyed to the paper in this way or that, digital or analog, one step or two. The price tags, somewhat modest, show a balance between rewarding the labor implied and the artist’s generous willingness to at least share this piece if not make more. The papers, identified by their exotic names of source or substance, suggest scrutiny, exclusivity, and sensitivity. They are not by and large “photographic” papers; they are fine papers holding photographic marks.

The Work

The legacy of black and white photography originates in constraints on chemistry but also immediately leaned on the precedents of black ink. Many photos celebrate opportunities that the photographers had to lean into calligraphy, or atmospheric washes, or detailed renderings of surfaces. The majority of the photographs did not fight for visual innovations, but instead showed full appreciation of how various “schools” of images have usually provoked feelings the way music can. The physical properties of the print were there to trigger emotion, rather like abstract expressionism regardless of the literal “information” offered in the picture’s detail.

But with photography, there is a built-in tension between the picture as an object and the picture as a communication.

Some pictures emphasized this tension by the way they used their edges -- to define how much of what in front of the lens was relevant to portray. That decision – to create a “scene” from the “seen” -- could be a more important reason for the picture being made than the aesthetics of the picture’s composition. Some other photos furthermore emphasized an aesthetic effect unusual for a given scene, found mainly through how the print established the scene’s look.

But still others went further – using prints mostly to “capture” peculiar characteristics of photographically recording viewing. For decades before now, in most photographers’ lives, there has been a period in which there are unintended effects – mistakes – that are targeted for elimination in printing; but perhaps later these mistakes are effects that get created intentionally, exposing a “vocabulary” of photography that is not from painting These are effects deliberately chosen and used as gestures arranged to illustrate or represent an experience such as memory’s complexity, real-time mystery, or drama. These graphic effects included optical, chemical or digital things like blurs, multiple exposures, flares, distortions, and the outer boundaries of image negatives that were not trimmed or hidden from view by the frames. or drawing. In this show, the importance of it is that it shifts attention from the photographer’s eye to the photographer’s hand, and from sights to visions.

Yesterday, as I was typing this, a software program called Grammarly insisted on changing my phrase “make a photograph” into “take a photograph”. That irritating yet charming naivete unintentionally pointed at the default expectations that broad and casual audiences may still bring to photography as an activity. But in the show we are discussing here, nearly all of the work is highly self-conscious regarding the role of the photographer as an imagemaker.

With “black and white” being the anchor approach for the show, a side effect of that self-consciousness jumped out at me: there is a near total absence of any work referring to the fact that we are in the age of the digital internet. The entire show is almost kind of a throwback experience. It guards the gates to a kind of classicism that, with only a few exceptions, seems disinterested in any notion of a subsequent avant-garde that we have, in fact, already seen.

The Exceptions

I think that this is important about the show, because a group show becomes a conversation between the works, not just a gathering. As I noted initially, this aspect of the show – the choices made curatorially to put certain pictures near each other – is fantastically effective in having one work’s features drawn out more persuasively by another work taking a shot at it too.

Having said that, I think also that there are two big issues raised about how this work fits into our larger personal experience as viewers and, for some of us, photographers.

One is the now overwhelming dominance of the use of “filters” as a starting point in the broad population of camera users who “create” images. Automation has converted exactly the labor of most of the printmaking effects seen in this show into styles. Given this new default, the show throws down a bit of a gauntlet in its self-confidence that younger web-native viewers can – or even want to – really grasp the virtue of what is on the walls. In a celebratory show, that may not be relevant to the show’s intent, but it begs questions about where the work should go from here. My guess is that the answer is Collectors, and if so, then limiting the editions of the work becomes highly important.

The second issue is at first more subtle, even odd, but ultimately is the most important thing I took from the show. On the opening night of the exhibit, tucked into a corner spot nearly alone, behind almost all other pictures on display, there were two Polaroid pictures. I’m going to elaborate a bit on them.

First of all, almost nothing in the history of photography has been as important as Polaroids to the population’s desire to make pictures. What comes to mind as potential challengers are the Kodak Brownie Process and now of course the Smartphone. What all three have in common is that there is no consumer darkroom necessary, and that the camera can go almost anywhere. When Polaroid prints became obtainable in color, they became, basically, and obviously, the first Instagram of real life. But Polaroid usage always had, and still has, the incredible tangibility of making a photo – very close to the direct, immediate, and emotional feedback of playing a musical instrument. Its result is a print, but the experience is photography as a medium.

Second, as if to emphasize that experience in the most explicit way, the Polaroids on view in the show are entirely encased in larger conventional glassfront frames. These frames instantly become archival boxes – completely unnecessary for viewing the images in the prints, but making the prints themselves special, protected from the chaos of being tossed around carelessly among unrelated other small items. The framing and visibility of the Polaroids say, “Remember that time when I made that picture while …” I am reminded that in today’s artworld, small physical images have market value in an entirely different way than the giant works increasingly found in many commercial galleries. They are compelling because they are intimate -- and in the case of a Polaroid, also one of a kind. This makes the photograph quite undeniably a piece of a life. It doesn’t have to convince you that it was; it just is.

So third, the Polaroid becomes more than a print; it is an imprint. Its image is almost more like an animal track, or a fingerprint, or a handwritten note. Something that was peeled right off the physical or emotional skin of somebody, carrying clear traces. Or, it is like a captured butterfly, preserved in the same press that caught it.

These particular Polaroids also have a visual quality that offers two outstanding features above and beyond the figures noticed in them.

One is a kind of lacquered transparency – a visibility through their surface that is reached only by first tuning the “translucence” setting all the way to its maximum limit. It’s not a property of the subjects in the image; it’s a property of the square photo objects presenting the image.

The other is the steep lean towards being monochromatic. Compared against the vividness of ordinary life in color, their tone represents distance, and symbolically that distance makes the viewing a recall. Here, recall is an overt intention to navigate the distance from the source moment where the photographer was, to the later moment where we are.

Less of the Same

Finally, being more monochrome than not in this show means that the graphics of their images go right to the same point that half or more of the other prints in the show labor for. The Polaroids actually set a bar against which all the black and whites can be measured, by pointing out that the photoprints did not actually need to be black and white. So, what does the true black and white of other prints do to communicate the energy of the moment that caused their birth? I keep thinking the same thing: it's inkpress...

This comparison with the Polaroids really lets them set a high bar, and the Polaroids, unexpectedly, are nearly the most powerful images in the show. Sporting what can only be called a subdued mood, and being the smallest things on the walls, they still dare nearly half of all the other pictures to emanate as much psychological presence as the Polaroids do.

But stepping away from all that...

Some other pictures almost uniquely hold their own way of making stillness dynamic.

In one work, a diptych compares two nearly identical scenes in a way that tells us time has passed between them but asks us whether the differences are more important than the similarities. If our answer is no, then what does that mean about time? In another work, what is typically rendered as a nature scene is agitated with just enough “camera shake” to remind us that grasping the scene was actually doing something active, not passive, in that place at that time. It is also more interesting as printmaking because it reminds us that the image maker was part of the scene, making decisions about having us see something in a certain way.

I think what these pictures emphasize is the idea that the prints are not just terrific two-dimensional compositions; they do this interesting thing of skipping right past the third dimension (space) into the fourth (time). In one more work, maybe the only one in the show that is not in a frame, what we see is a collage, lacquered in what feels like amber, that layers moments of a movement spanning time.

Through the Lens

Dwelling on some of the exceptions in the show is easy mainly because the full group of pictures is a generous helping. I’ve taken up your time with revisiting how the show’s strong organization by style is instantly helpful in unifying the show yet sets the stage for a healthy variety of experiences.

Since I’ve claimed that printmaking dominates the show, it is important to respect how much camerawork is on display and not take it for granted. Several works are most engaging because it is obvious that the image simply couldn’t exist except for the vantage point of the photographer, regardless of printing. In such cases, printing has one job – to not dull the distinction of the vantage point, and if possible, to amplify it. There is something that maybe is called hyper-realism in these pictures, and part of their excitement is that they do not rely on “special effects”.

Surprisingly, there are exceptionally few portraits in the show. The ones hanging are simply expert, but they are nameless and so they make us wonder whether the intent was to be iconic or biographical. That curiosity is a good thing, since it makes us want to see more of them and find out. There are, by the way, no selfies.

Lastly in this article, I’ll mention that some works attend to enhanced “documentation” – not billed as such, but examples include the capture of a decisive moment; the unusual appearance of an ordinary place; or what can only be called closeup evidence, of something that cannot be tolerated as is and must get changed. In each case, the difference felt is that the shots are not just opportunistic snaps. Rather, they are a refinement of attention and skill that promises more focus on the subject to come rather than being concerned with what I called Collectors of classics.

Next Time

Throughout this review I intentionally omitted names of artists and titles of works. My reason for that is in my hope to provoke you to visit the show. Then, while there, to use these notes and thoughts as clues to which ones I’m mentioning, by considering how each piece you see works one way or another.

Likely there will be several ways to get the show's images in front of you and do this match game at your convenience. But this is, after all, an exhibit of prints, not screens or projections. One should get into the gallery space itself and really feel the way they look.

- MR, Dec 12, 2022

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