By Eric Levin
May 18, 1987 12:00 PM


Conceived as a glimpse of American life on the eve of the Constitution’s bicentennial, this absorbing show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art suggests that there are many valid ways to photograph people and many talented people to take those photographs. Underlying the diversity is a consensus that exploring the “social landscape”—loosely defined as people’s relationship to their environment—remains as deep a challenge for today’s photographers as it was for predecessors such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, who coined the term in 1963.

Much of the work by the best-known photographers in the show, which runs through July 5, has been exhibited elsewhere or published in books. But the show constitutes a concise guide to some of the best photography of people in recent years. There are Larry Fink’s startling, Arbus-like party scenes from his book Social Graces; Nicholas Nixon’s coolly sensuous group portraits of children from Photographs From One Year; Barbara P. Norfleet’s wry slices of the upper crust from All the Right People; Judith Joy Ross’s portraits, with their storm-cloud aura, of visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; Nan Goldin’s excavations of her punkish milieu from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; and Joel Sternfeld’s penetrating contemplations of people and their trodden terrain from American Prospects.

Together, these artists complement and illuminate each other. For instance, hanging Nixon and Fink side by side clarifies their similarities—their interest in group interactions—and their differences: Where Nixon is analytical, almost sculptural in his concerns, Fink is intense, unleashing his flash at moments of peak drama “like a theatrical spotlight,” as curator Martha Chahroudi puts it.

Chahroudi is also championing several lesser-known artists who hold their own with the elite company and contribute to the show’s visual dialogue. Thomas Frederick Arndt’s essay on two farm families in his home state of Minnesota illustrates without seeming to intrude or stage-manage and provides counterpoint to Norfleet’s similarly photographed blue bloods. Jim Stone’s whimsical portraits of Americans’ hobbies and pastimes offer a view of obsession to contrast with that of Goldin, hanging nearby. Bruce Gilden and color photographer Patrick D. Pagnano, who prowl the streets of New York, complement each other like Nixon and Fink. While Pagnano meditates on people as components of the multihued cityscape, Gilden thrusts his wide-angle lens and flash into the onrushing parade, creating an explosive, garish, teetering world that Chahroudi describes as “closer to the forms and sensations of dreams than to waking life.”

Most satisfying of the new talents are Jack Carnell and Stephen Scheer. Carnell, in a way that relates to Sternfeld, trains his 8 x 10-inch view camera at Americans at leisure. His pictures have a narrative quality. Scheer’s scenes of life along the Housatonic River in Connecticut are as intimate as Fink’s, as color-expressive as Sternfeld’s and as eloquent in form as Nixon’s. Some group shows are swatches of clashing fabric. This one, melding 12 utterly individual styles, is a well-sewn quilt.