Do Jerry Spagnoli’s Big Photos Miss the Big Picture?
by JT Peters
NEW YORK PHOTOGRAPHER Jerry Spagnoli posits that maybe “history” is nothing more than what each of us has experienced in our life time. What we read in history books, the history we hear about in the news, is just a collective bargain society has constructed — an agreed upon history. But what it all boils down to is our personal experiences; that’s what we all take to our graves.
This concept, and an unwavering dedication to a unified photographic compositional formula, is what his series Local Stories, is all about. Spagnoli’s landscapes give us a broad look at communities living together but separately in many geographic and socio-economic contexts.
To Spagnoli’s credit, he makes no attempts to blur the lines between concept and aesthetic. His works don’t beat around the bush or try to convince the audience they are anything other than an expression of the artist’s worldview.
This gambit is a risky one as it makes his artwork’s effectiveness almost entirely dependent on how interesting his artist’s purpose is. Luckily for the audience, his concept makes its case in more ways than one.
First, we have to understand the formula behind Spagnoli’s delivery, best known previously for his daguerrotypes (including a series with Chuck Close). Local Stories consists entirely of shots taken, presumably from a tripod or a similar mount, with an extremely — extraordinarily, even — high quality wide angle lens. This lens is truly the star of Local Stories and without it these compositions simply would not be attainable. Spagnoli uses this monstrous lens to capture moments in time where the sun sits perfectly center frame, shining down on everything from gatherings a la Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to massive spans of forested land (and even to an evening at the Charlotte Mud Track).
Each of these photographs is keen to emphasize the commonplaceness of the actions in the frame. Here are people just living their lives, writing the next page in their “personal histories,” regarding one another as simple fellow human beings enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon at a street fair in Brooklyn or at a nearly abandoned racetrack in Montana.
What makes these images so compelling, aside from the detail and viewing angle provided by the lens, is their tranquility. Even in the most crowded settings Spagnoli’s photographs inspire an assuaging sigh from the audience. Looking at any one of the places he photographs, we know that were we there, we would be content, life would be easy, the world would be bright — and in a very Thoreau-type way we would be happy.
These feelings, while ultimately unrealistic, make Spagnoli’s Local Stories a grin-generating affair. However, after a dozen of these compositions the formulaic nature of these compositions begins to fade the color from the high-gloss photo-paper. These photographs are detailed. They are beautifully composed for the most part. They are certainly, as mentioned above, relaxing. But they are all the SAME. Maybe this only builds on his concept, but from Peru to Paris the heliocentric Pleasantville-bit flips the “Déjà vu” switch after the sixth or seventh or eighth viewing. After a few walks around the gallery, it’s easy to find yourself feeling nothing more than a pleasant tinge of cordial approval — which might be less of a reaction than Spagnoli’s concept buys in for.
By the time we’ve taken everything in, the dedication to this wide-angle formula brings a satisfying unity, yes, but it also poses a nettling question. Could the artist have built on his concept, furthered his process to an extent that the concept inspires more than a obliging grin — to the point where instead of palliating, it generates a unique and rare understanding? The answer is probably. Perhaps Spagnoli could have gone deeper, narrowing his perspective slightly toward the microcosm to the same tune as William Eggleston or Robert Frank, who each in their own way said something more about personal histories. Perhaps he could float down to the moments we all experience every day, approaching at the personal level his concept talks about. Perhaps asking more of Spagnoli, especially given the technical fidelity of his photographs, is unreasonable. It just seems that, with this wide of an angle, the audience gets more than just brilliant skies and landscapes — they also get missed opportunities.
Originally published by the Charlotte Viewpoint