What kinds of stories can a photo tell?

The two-year Master of Fine Arts program in photography at Yale University is, to put it mildly, intense. Only nine students are admitted each year, and expectations for those few artists lucky enough to get into this exclusive program run very high. It’s interesting to note that four of the program’s graduates are now teaching in the region.

The unflinching lens: Mike Smith’s works reveal a desperate, often painful world.

One notable example is Cathryn Griffin, who has been at Western Carolina University for a number of years. Her work is notable for its technical excellence and wry sense of humor. Her new work can be seen at the new Isobel Miller Gallery in Sylva.

Three more Yale MFA graduates—Pamela Pecchio, Mike Smith and Jeff Whetstone—have their works featured as part of an exhibit of contemporary photography at UNCA’s S. Tucker Cooke Gallery.

Jeff Whetstone has an impressive résumé, including several Lyndhurst Foundation grants for his work and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Currently, he teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill. He works in black and white, and visual dichotomy is a focus in much of his work.

“Zoolatry” is a series of square photos showing all sorts of small living creatures captured in disposable man-made plastic bowls placed in the animal’s natural habitat. After seeing the piece, you could feel incredibly guilty next time you reach for paper plates at the grocery.

There are also two life-sized photographs of a young man named Jon Marc: one in his regular fastened-below-the-belly jeans, and another in his turkey hunter camouflage outfit, wrapped like a mummy. His pose in both has his pudgy arms crossed protectively across his chest.

Whetstone’s “Circles Over Ages, Kentucky” is one of the most outstanding works in the exhibition. It is a real commentary on the beauty that can be found in the aftermath of human intrusion upon our natural world, no matter how mindless.

The natural world is also in focus in the works of Pamela Pecchio, who recently joined the staff at UNCA. She clearly reveres nature and frequently comments upon the inevitability of the life cycle. In her works, there are trees toppled by wind, snapped in two by storms, or just plain decayed from old age and ravaged by wildlife.

Her “Poison I” and “Poison II” depict a sumac, common along our roadsides, in its summer green and again in autumnal red, but possibly not the poisonous variety. “The Back Way” is wonderfully atmospheric. It makes it easy to imagine the many life forms wriggling through the murky swamp water.

The photographs that you won’t be able to get out of your mind, though, are those of Mike Smith. The Eastern Tennessee State University instructor’s works are painful to look at. You feel witness to insights into our human condition that are forbidden—things far too personal to be out in public. The work brings to mind the Works Progress Administration photographers who wandered through Appalachia during the Depression. It almost begs that old ethical question: Is this art, documentation or just voyeurism?

Titles for Smith’s works are simply the names of the places where the photo was taken. There is clarity in the work, an undeniable understanding of the people and their situation. Smith seems to see into their past and their future. He has an uncanny ability to capture images with a camera that can tell complete stories about who we are and how we survive.

The lovely young woman seated in the cab of a truck in his “Pleasant Beach, Carter County, TN” looks directly into the cameras lens. She is confident; she projects an aura of knowing. The shirtless young man with her has the “praying hands” tattooed on his bicep. (And he looks as though he knows that prayer may be his only hope!) The woman in “Fox Hollow, TN” is quite different. She sits hunched in a filthy, dilapidated room with a man in pajamas. From her bone structure, it is plain that she was once a beauty. The man stares out, a dreamy expression on his face, in his own world, oblivious to her misery. It’s scary.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]

who: Photographs by Pamela Pecchio, Mike Smith, and Jeff Whetstone
what: A collection of works by Yale MFA alumni
where: S. Tucker Cooke Gallery at UNCA
when: Through Monday, March 4. Weekdays 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (251-6559)


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