Within the matte and frame lies an almost blank, gray rectangle. Recognizing the one contrasting spot—a foot, toes downward, entering at the top-left corner—causes this undifferentiated area to pop into focus: a reach of asphalt or concrete stretching away from the camera, into which open space a woman is just stepping. The title helps: “Best Foot Forward.” Given the inauspiciousness of the enterprise, the ironic intention is clear. The photo humorously suggests that it’s a big world, where even the intrepid can only take a one step at a time. Or maybe it means that in our minds we dramatize actions that can rarely live up to the anticipation. It’s hard to know the exact meaning of a punchline, or how it gives rise to humor. But in photo after photo throughout Relay, her two-person show with Amanda Moore at Kayo Gallery, Shalee Cooper combines a gimlet eye with blasé commentary to elicit chortles from those not afraid to laugh in the sacred precincts of art.
One crucial dimension of the gaze is distance. How far a viewer stands from the subject does much to shape not only what is seen, but what will be felt about it. For every subject and purpose, then, there is a perfect viewing distance. Amanda Moore photographs the landscape with a particular and precise agenda, which is perhaps best described as capturing a sense of place: specifically, the American West. To do this, she typically lines up a site or subject squarely, in a straightforward and expository fashion. But the resulting clarity is a formula for visual boredom, a threat that she disarms by her exacting feel for distance. Whether her subject is a single building, like in ‘Drive-in Movies: Dayton, TN,’ or ‘Fuel Stop: Idaho Falls, ID,’ or a community, like the neighborhood of Birchwood, Tennessee that figures in her ‘Cliff Dwellers‘ series, she must find a point of view that is close enough to single out her subject, yet far enough away to convey a subliminal sense of context or locale. In the case of the Cliff Dwellers, that may have meant putting her equipment in a boat and rowing about on the lake until what she needed appeared in her viewfinder. In some powerful images, like ‘Pebble Rock Wall: Idaho Falls, ID,‘ or ‘Tidwell’s Fruit Stand: Dayton, TN,’ while the theme remains architectural, she moves in on telling details. But whatever the distance, the effect is the same: her photographs alchemically transform these man-made objects into portrait subjects that come alive and swell up, as if overcome with pride in themselves, and, despite their factual passivity, seem to preen for the camera.
It should be noted that few people, including a disappointingly small percentage of photographers, fully understand how optics affect the way a camera draws. The subtle variations in distance Moore achieves cannot be made by ‘zooming in’ or cropping a print. Actual distance is stamped indelibly on the perspective rendered by a negative or digital file, no less than the composition created by its visual elements. Compared to Moore, then, Shalee Cooper’s witty social comments may seem to demand less optical precision on her part. And indeed, the tradition of street photography, as practiced by men like Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, has conditioned viewers to expect a tradeoff between spontaneity and technical polish. But where they sought journalistic or formal results, Cooper’s photos depend on a precise emotional distance: one suitable for communicating the social commentary of a present-day Jane Austen. Had ‘Paris, 2PM’ included a distant view of the Eiffel Tower, the title would have been superfluous at best. Instead, it provokes speculation about the relationship of the couple who caught Cooper’s eye. The next couple, seen ‘Pissing in the Wind,’ require a very different distance to maintain the correct emotional perspective.
So far as I know, no one has ever made a systematic study of artistic friendships. Last year, Kayo showed Sandy Brunvand and Al Denyer. Like them, Shalee Cooper and Amanda Moore have developed a working relationship that includes the decision to exhibit together. Unlike, say, Picasso and Braque during the heyday of Cubism, all four women’s works can readily be told apart, on both stylistic and technical grounds. Yet in the present case, there are shared sympathies, and like a soprano and a counter-tenor, they sometimes cross over into each other’s territory. Tidwell’s sign—‘Sold Out’ instead of just Closed—puts Cooper’s punning ambivalence into Moore’s voice, while in ‘Reaching for the Shot,‘ Moore’s self-conscious relation to photography is delivered with Cooper’s slowly-igniting satirical burn. One would like to think they encourage each other, to push boundaries and bring out virtues they may not see in their own work. I recommend staying tuned.
Relay, photographic works by Shalee Cooper and Amanda Moore is at Salt Lake’s Kayo Gallery through February 13.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.