“Each life converges to some centre / Expressed or still; / Exists in every human nature / A goal,” writes Emily Dickinson. These are the words that visiting scholar in Classical Studies Elizabeth Bobrick read when asked to come up with a title for the current photography exhibition on view at Davison Art Center, which features thirty-three photographs from Bobrick’s and Andrew Szegedy-Maszak’s personal collections.
Reflecting the interests of two individuals, “Converging to a Center” takes viewers from vibrantly colored buildings in Havana to Robert Frank’s loft in New York City. We’re made privy to the plight of the marginalized Yi ethnic minority in Sichuan China as well as drawn back to our youth with an image of a little girl’s pout as she stands in front of her family’s car. She’s not ready to move. While a unifying theme was never sought when forming the collection, there are a number of tropes that are visible throughout it. “Converging to a Center” broadly explores the universal experiences that inform the human condition, such as displacement, change, and the effects of human interference on nature.
The collection as a whole is vast and fills up most of the wall space in the DAC. It’s hard to believe that these photographs, which range from large wide-angle landscape shots to smaller framed prints, sat quietly in a dusty corner of Szegedy-Maszak and Bobrick’s home, stored away—not hung to be exhibited. Though the two purchased each work with no intent of adhering to a single central theme, it makes sense to see all thirty-three photographs exhibited alongside one another. They all elicit the similar somberness that one experiences when looking through archival photographs, even though many of the prints are not particularly old. It’s the déjà-vu feeling of having seen an image before—perhaps not literally the same image—but having come across the message it aims to convey. All of the photographs convey a narrative to the viewer, one that is tied intimately to an era, an identity, a geographical region. But at the same time, in some aspect, it is a narrative that belongs to everyone.
Take the portrait of the little girl, for example, titled “We’re Moving (Again).” Taken by Lindsay Keys, the photograph features a young girl of about eight years old. Donning a butterfly-speckled tank top and cotton shorts, she leans on the hood of what is probably her family’s Mercedes. There is a “For Sale” sign on the dashboard. The girl’s disgruntled countenance rings with almost comical clarity: “We’re moving AGAIN?” The exasperation is palpable, as is the feeling of being a child under the authority of parents. Even for someone who has never moved homes in their lives, the nostalgia in this portrait brings back memories summer days, with ice cream trucks, parental orders, and a yearning for independence. The girl’s expression freezes her in time, in a special place in the coming of age narrative when the allure of adolescence is most attractive—before one feels nostalgic for childhood, girlhood, and simpler times.
Jem Southam’s “March 1999” comes from the series Utopian Pyne, in which the photographer documents the landscape surrounding a pond near his home in Exeter, Devon. Formerly an industrial site characterized by overgrowth and neglect, a local gardener took it upon himself to beautify the area. In the photograph, we see the presence of hopeful daffodils and lush green growth that has begun to overtake the dead, swampy weeds, but the skeleton of the site’s industrial path still exists, made clear by the hazy abandoned structures hidden behind tree branches. The garden, therefore, has not quite become the beautiful paradise that the gardener might have hoped for, but still marks a site transformed by the human efforts—first by making the pond area an industrial site and then by making efforts to clean it up. This reflects the power of human presence on nature and the environment, demonstrating that though as individuals we are small, as society we are capable of transforming entire landscapes.
Chinese photographer Adou captures a series of prints that tell the story of the Yi ethnic minority in Sichuan province in China. In a photograph titled “Man Clutching Goose,” we are let into the remoteness and impersonal nature of the subject’s relationship to their surrounding the environment. The high contrast in the print’s black and white tones reduce the subject to a shadow, and as he holds the goose up in front of him, neither of them have any real distinguishing features. Both man and goose are made to be anonymous. Positioned in the lower-left corner of the frame, it is also clear that the man is not meant to be the central focal point in the photograph or in this world. As an ethnic minority, he is reduced to a second-class citizen, one whose invisibility defines him more than anything else. As he sits clutching the goose in front of a tall but distanced mountain range, his relatively small size is emphasized, eliciting a tone of alienation and loneliness. Aside from the goose, there are no other beings around the man, and given the mountains in the distance, it seems that there is no one else in the vicinity for miles and miles.
One does not have to be a member of an ethnic minority to have felt isolation and loneliness at one point or the other. Adou’s images are powerful because, though they convey a narrative of a group of people most American viewers may not have had interacted with, the general feeling that is conveyed through the narrative is universal and familiar. Therefore, they speak in both the third and second person, and at times, conflate the two. The photographs we look at inform our understanding of solitude, displacement, and nature, and we, in turn, seek to understand the narratives being shown to us by deriving information from our past experiences. As visual culture theorist John Berger would say, “It is seeing that establishes our place in the surrounding world,” and in “Converging to a Center,” perhaps it is the lives around us that converge with ours, and ours, in turn, with theirs.