Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Power in a Posse: Kent Miles and the Salt Lake Seven

Kent Miles, photograph by Jared Christensen.

Art as a profession has always come across to me as an extremely individual pursuit. Artists have their time in school to work in a group situation, participating in critiques and honing their vision throughout the course of several classes, but once an artist receives a degree and progresses into the professional world the idea of critique and group learning seems to fade away. The professional artist appears as a lone ranger in pursuit of his or her own expression. So I was intrigued to learn about the Salt Lake Seven (SL7), a group of photographers who meet every month to discuss one another’s work and to give themselves challenges for the coming month. It might be a bit strong to call them “The Magnificent Seven,” but the group’s exhibit this month at Art Access Gallery reveals that when artists ride together their individual visions are given increased firepower.

At the head of SL7 is Kent Miles, one of Utah’s better-known photographers, who serves both as the group’s mentor as well as a working member. In his own artistic career Miles has had several mentors: Frank Erickson, a junior high teacher who, according to Miles “was the instructor of a lot of people who have been in the arts around Salt Lake. He taught us about color, about seeing;” and in college Borge Andersen developed Miles’ interest in photography. After graduating from the U in the early 70’s, Miles moved to California to pursue further study in photography at the Art Center in Los Angeles and when he came back did a lot of work with Leslie Kelen, who founded the Center for Documentary Arts in Salt Lake City.

Miles continues to do all of his work in what he calls the “documentary tradition,” and he began his own role as mentor teaching classes at the Salt Lake Art Center. When he decided to leave the center because the classes began to interfere with his own work, one of his students approached him and asked if he would be willing to continue teaching lessons on a scaled-back schedule in a less formal setting. While Miles was initially hesitant, he decided to give it a try, and that was in essence the beginning of the Salt Lake Seven.

The name “Salt Lake Seven” comes from the number of artists who participated in their first exhibit. Now, rather than indicating a fixed membership, it is meant to suggest the idea of several people learning and working together. Miles says that while there is generally a core of members that come to each monthly meeting, other people come and go as their schedules permit. The group is open to anyone who wants to take that “next step,” and Miles encourages anyone interested to contact him through his website, kentmiles.com.

Over a decade since it was formed, the group is still active and Miles continues to be impressed by his fellow group members. Today it is made up of a few professional photographers, but most of the members make their living in other fields while maintaining a continued love and pursuit of photography. The heart of the group is formed by a shared fascination with the photographic image and the ever-changing world of photography. The monthly meetings offer the group members an opportunity to take the next step in refining their skill and artistic vision. Miles firmly believes that, “if you want to be good at something, you need to spend time exploring depth, not just surface breadth” and the SL7 provides the means to reach that depth. Since photography is the art “most inseparably connected to technology,” the group also provides a forum to discuss the issues that face photography as an art form at large.

A big part of the meetings consists of serious critiques; the members all trust one another so they feel like they can take risks in their work without the fear of being “marked down.” Each month they discuss concepts and ideas and they leave each meeting with an “assignment” to work on for the next month. Miles says that he is extremely impressed with the work that has come out of the group; there’s not only high quality work being produced, but a great diversity of style. Like any other member Miles also produces work. He says, “as they respond to challenges, it inspires me to try new things.” Miles is very proud of the group, not because of any particular style or subject matter he sees, but because all seem to be getting visibly better.

Threshold, the exhibit on display at Art Access Gallery through February 11, contains the work of 10 of the group’s members, and many of the ideas that I discussed with Miles are apparent in the show. On a purely technical level, Threshold displays some of the most beautifully printed images I have ever seen. When I talked to Miles at the show’s opening he said that print quality is one aspect of a photographer’s work that is most helped by group critiques. Most of the prints are pigment ink prints, but there are some traditional silver prints. The majority of the pieces are displayed in simple black frames mounted on white matte board, a simple presentation that helps the packaging disappear so that viewers have direct access to the stunning imagery.

One of the things Miles encourages in SL7 is “a genuine expression of individual vision,” and Threshold is a prime example of individuality. Alan Jackson’s serene images of large scale sprinkler systems present a beautiful look at the American agricultural landscape.|1| Bill Patterson’s work investigates the human body, which to him is “the highest standard of beauty in the universe,” |2|while Rocio Briceño brings an intimacy and connectedness to the human form that does something quite different than Patterson’s imagery.|3| Miles’ own work reflects his idea that “vision, not subject matter, is the critical element of great photographers;” he has managed to turn such simple things as stools and ice freezers into powerfully captivating images.|4| Bret Howell’s series of fence posts expertly showcases the intrigue that can be generated by the subtle differences in repeated forms,|5| and Carl Oelerich’s images have an engrossing combination of intimacy and separation reminiscent of Robert Frank.|6| One image that made a strong impact was Steve Proctor’s high contrast photograph of the Grand Canyon, with the waters of the Colorado, black as night winding through the beautifully captured canyon walls.|7|Justin Hackworth’s photos of “the overlooked,” as he calls it, brought a sense of calmness and comfort to the show.|8| Greg Sumner effectively represents the vastness and spirituality of the American West.|9| The images that stood out the most were those made by Brian Buroker.|10|His images are representative of an expert eye and ability to turn everyday sights into captivating images by isolating them in the frame. They are beautiful examples of the investigation of light and how it plays across surfaces.

Threshold is the most impressive and engrossing show I have seen for quite some time. If there is something to be said about the show as a whole, it is that the images all have an inescapable feeling of the West. The works ask for and reward long and repeated observation, revealing new hidden beauty with each glance. The show is representative of hard work and dedicated refinement. It is easy to see why the Salt Lake Seven has survived for as long as it has. The benefits of working with a group of trusted friends manifest themselves in the sheer quality of work on display.

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