Just Looking: New Portrait Street Photography an exhibition of works by Asheville photographer Anthony Bellemare, is on view at PUSH Gallery through April 14. The opening reception is today — Friday, March 7, from 7-10 p.m. The collection highlights both familiar faces and the visual record of an attentive passer-by. But, at its core, the show is less about Asheville than it is about personal observations, individuals and day-to-day interactions.
Bellemare draws his focus to the people, the place and the pavement itself in three series of untitled, large-scale black-and-white photographs. A set of six 24-by-36-inch images offers glimpses of the grooves and grit of the asphalt below. They detail granular physicality: the cracks and stains, slicks of oily water and, more recently, broken chunks of ice.
But it’s their sheer size that morphs these could-be static images into energetic, abstract topographies. Thin, glistening puddles take on marshy qualities in two photos, while the clumpier forms of a chipped and broken traffic lane mimic an aerial perspective of snow-capped mountains in another. Likewise, shards of fractured sidewalk ice offer a bird’s-eye view of a frozen waterway.
Bellemare’s portraits, which are arguably the primary focus of the show, offer little in the ways of technology or time-stamped personal effects. No phones. No gadgets. No period constraints. The collection creates a vein of timelessness. Any single photo could have been taken within the last 50 years. A handful could be from more than 150 years ago.
A few of the usual Asheville street-photography suspects have made their way onto the walls. There’s the abstracted self-portrait via window reflection and an up-close shot of a bearded man growling through a puff of dense smoke from the cigar pinched between his teeth. There’s also a stripe-socked Gypsy leaning against a wall while wielding an accordion. But the works push past these happenstance encounters to embrace a broader view. While they’re all inherently in and of a specific moment, the collection reaches toward a deeper understanding of the individual.
The show’s central series includes eight up-close, intimate and simultaneously barren portraits. These images were shot against the same minimalist background — the I.M. Pei building on Biltmore Avenue. It’s that backdrop that dramatizes each figure and further draws attention to the captured personalities. Some eyes lock with both casual embrace and icy stares. Others break away at the last moment, glancing off to the right and left. Cheeks, eyebrows and piercings are propelled forward. Ruffles and wrinkles are monumental. Hats, hair and lapels grab the viewer.
Meanwhile, the concrete background’s pits, cracks and faint lines add just enough texture to each photo to keep the eyes busy while also reviving the atmospheric detail of Bellemare’s ground shots. Those scars imitate bullet holes in two portraits, each featuring military attire. One subject sports a Russian hat and officer’s jacket, circa the 1940s. The other, a former antiques-mall booth salesman, dons suspenders, a white button-up shirt and steely gray Confederate cap, placing him somewhere in mid-1860s. Each work offers insight into Bellemare’s efforts to capture, in an instant, a subject’s pure essence of character. But best of all, they instill familiarity in strangers and shroud regular faces in a new anonymity.
Visit Just Looking, on view at PUSH Gallery through Monday, April 14. Image courtesy of the artist.