Austin’s still-young ATM Gallery is developing its curatorial presence rather well, and invited Bobby Scheidemann to show his photographs depicting traffic jams on the city’s I-35 this month. There are three different kinds of photographs presented in the exhibition: portraits of the bored drivers and their companions crawling through our unceasingly gridlocked city; tires theatrically mired in muddy puddles; and things seen along the highway. The most conceptually dense work definitely comes in with the car portraits, as they seem to chatter on about what they want to tell you.
The show is twenty-seven black-and-white photographs presented much like engineering prints, on plain paper, and composed of tiny dots of varying value. They’re hung with red clips— maybe a nod to the red lines from the ubiquitous Google Maps. The prints are all two feet by three feet and three feet by five feet, which makes them impressive and imposing, especially in the portraits, because they’re nearly life-sized and make you feel like you really are hovering above the windshield and peering into the private world of the commuters.
To make the work, Scheidemann perches himself on the 12th Street Bridge with a telephoto lens and snaps multitudes of cars, without knowing what’s contained within each image until he edits the batch. He zooms into the car’s interiors to find the people within, and these portraits do speak to the boredom, tedium and meaninglessness of this isolating daily ritual.
But there are also questions around the privacy of these people as it’s breached by Scheidemann. If this were a more high-profile show getting a lot of press, would the artist have to answer for his ethics? To be in one’s vehicle is to have a fabricated and familiar sense of privacy and personal space, even though nothing is more ‘public’ than your moving car out on a crowded highway. The work is definitely exploring voyeurism, and grants some of that same irking feeling that happens when irritated drivers trade glances on the road. The whole car-dependent concept feels like a metaphor for the futility of marking time, and that fluid private/public sense of moving through space. What is this hand basket, really, and where are we going?
Perhaps the most visually interesting images here, though, are the photos that Scheidemann takes of tires and puddles. Scheidemann toes the line between image taker and image maker in this series, and it’s easy to argue that the scenes he finds along a highway are in the image-taker camp—the photographer who just goes out into the world and snaps things, only to eventually edit the cache down to the most striking images. But the tire pictures (verses the driver portraits) are clearly composed, with merely the slightest element of chance to give them that glorious serendipity photographers often chase. These images look like careful graphite drawings with magnificent flowing lines, soft value transitions and sharp composition. I want to look at them all day. A more careful curator’s hand might have helped define the transition between these very different kinds of photos Scheidemann presents; it’s a wonder that they’re coming from the same head space, and for me the disjointedness doesn’t serve the show as a whole very well. I would like to see these tires shown separately.
The engineering feel of the prints mostly works here, but the portraits on the large, cheap paper can come off like giant clippings from a newspaper, or like death announcements for the hopelessly bored. Scheidemann is a talented photographer; it bums me to see his work lessened for want of some good paper and frames. Anyway, if you can get beyond this issue, there’s a satisfying conceptual swirl to these images. Scheidemann has a gift for infusing banality with inexplicable beauty and mysteriousness. This show is strong in its aesthetic idea, though the economy of the prints is actually pretty frustrating. But so is traffic.
At ATM Gallery, Austin, until May 23.