Photographic Display Tells Us ‘What We Look Like’

Posted January 29, 2010 at 3:13pm

When was the last time you visited a good old-fashioned county fair? It’s probably been a while if you live in D.C. full time.

The closest fairs lie outside the District in Virginia and Maryland. Plus it’s still the dead of winter — not exactly prime Ferris wheel weather.

But if you find yourself downtown between now and Feb. 26, you can duck inside the Art Museum of the Americas’ Organization of American States General Secretariat Building (1889 F St. NW) to view a photography exhibit that will put you smack-dab in the middle of not just one but two fairs. And if San Diego-based photographer Duncan McCosker’s exhibit, “What We Look Like,— has its intended effect, you might even leave with a few impressions about the American dream as well.

The exhibit comprises 50 black-and-white prints that line one of the museum’s long hallways, all of which were taken at the Los Angeles County Fair and the Del Mar Fair in San Diego County over the past two decades.

At first glance, each frame may seem like a candid snapshot of the crowd — but if you look closely, you can see McCosker’s lens operating at the opposite poles of hope and despair.

One photograph shows a man walking away from the camera wearing a T-shirt with the words “California Dreaming— printed across the back; standing off to the side is a woman wearing a flowery blouse and a pained expression. Her eyebrows are furrowed, her head is tilted, and her mouth is unmistakably twisted into a grimace. Even her children appear tense — certainly not the epitome of such an auspicious slogan.

In many ways, McCosker’s work captures the internal contradictions that he feels exemplify America.

“America’s still the most hopeful country in the world,— McCosker said in an interview. “It’s still the place where dreams can be fulfilled, but side by side there are these incredible challenges that exist — and they all seem to be visible at the fairgrounds.—

In another photograph, taken in 1992, a darkly dressed black man strolls toward the camera. His confident gait demarcates a nation that has moved away from an era of racial injustice but still has a long way to go. Next to him there is a white family — dressed almost entirely in white.

“The thing that strikes you about that photograph is the disparity — two entirely different worlds walking past each other,— McCosker said. “It speaks to the kind of distance that America has to travel in understanding race relations; it’s a photograph that’s important to understanding this place.—

In this way, McCosker says he sees himself as a taxonomist of the crowd. He exploits the fact that fairs funnel people from all walks of life into one crowded place, where he uses his camera to collect impressive core samples from unique cross-sections of America.

Social commentary aside, photography buffs may also appreciate McCosker’s use of highlights, shadows and contrast. Bright Southern California can make it difficult to make correct exposures, but all of the shadows in McCosker’s photographs are perfectly exposed and purposefully detailed. Still, McCosker says he’s not interested in “eye candy.—

Instead, he’s more concerned with scale and distance. Much of the emotional and symbolic strength of McCosker’s work is derived from the fact that he uses a large camera fitted with a wide-angle lens. Most of his photographs are taken from 4 or 5 feet away, which affords the viewer a more intimate, precise look at the gesture and nuance that makes his work special.

“All of those technical concerns are a means to description,— he said.

Ultimately, McCosker’s work represents an inquiry into both the human spirit and the American dream.

“For the most part, I would like to think that America operates in this democratic ideal where everyone is equal,— he said. “But like [Attorney General Eric Holder] said last year, America seems to be socially segregated voluntarily.—

However this trend seems to be slowly reversing itself, he says, and can be seen throughout the evolution of his work. One of the earliest pictures he made at a fair during the 1980s showed a crowd virtually bereft of a non-white face, but as viewers go through McCosker’s earlier photographs to more contemporary times, the crowd becomes more diverse.

“Now it’s almost as if the world is screaming at you — it’s more complex than you ever realized,— he said.

And for what was once generally agreed upon as a family, two cars and a house in the suburbs, perhaps so is the American dream. For some, all it takes is a visit to the local county fair (or photography exhibit) to realize that.