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DAYS OF SPLENDOR AND RUIN

Jacksonville: A Tale of My City is a powerful show

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I can still remember the first time I saw a Polaroid print self-develop. We’d taken Althea’s Evel Knievel 10-speed (me balanced on the handlebars) down the hill. We were hanging out at her auntie’s house, eating sugar sandwiches, and her uncle snapped a picture of us, arms slung over each other’s shoulders, grinning wildly into the camera. When the print slid out, he shook it and blew on it, telling us that it was magic. And in 1984, for one tech-deprived kid from the Eastside, it was.

The show Jacksonville: A Tale of My City, curated by Shawana Brooks, features 13 photographers, each with a distinctive point of view, reflecting a different facet of this city. At the center of the exhibit is Cheryl McCain’s display of vintage Polaroid cameras and photographs in the heart of the Makerspace, highlighting the transitory magic of photography. Lots of objects double as mementos, but Polaroids are somehow different, in that they’re more bulky than a photographic print and each is a record of an instant, made visible and tactile in the next instant.

Surrounding McCain’s installation are photographs by various artists; many of the photos evoke a bulldozed and forgotten time—even some of the contemporary prints feel heavy with the weight of forgotten or overlooked history. They reflect the Jacksonville that one suspects isn’t heralded by Visit Jacksonville or the Mayor’s office ... in these images, it’s not easier here.

Without a doubt, Bob Self’s works stand as beacons in a show that boasts multiple peaks. Self, a photographer for the Times-Union for more than 30 years, has seemingly mastered the art of being present without being intrusive. His photos’ power is not rooted in only the composition, but from the emotional weight therein as well. Crab Boil (1995) is subdued; it's feels almost as casual as a snapshot. Two figures stand behind/alongside a grey lopsided house with a yellow-trimmed window. The house seems monolithic, the figures engaged with the boil, not with the photographer; it’s as if he disappeared.

Self’s photos in the Makerspace area are a powerful historical keystone of the display; they show us who we are as a community. The message is ultimately one of resilience, even if it is painful. The Makerspace images are tied to his 1995 LaVilla suite depicting the demolition of that storied black neighborhood. Each photo in the LaVilla series tells a moving story (often a story of moving); the “urban renewal project” that took place during Mayor Ed Austin's administration.

Images that document the interior and the exterior of homes reveal intimacy and humanity: They are side-by-side portraits of grandeur and modesty. Exetr Brill Home depicts a two-story home covered in faded sea-foam green paint, with brick-red details and a splendid red-and-white awning. A nattily dressed woman wearing a cloche hat leans on the steps. It is an objectively beautiful image, made more so by the knowledge that the house almost certainly no longer stands. Contrasting this subtly powerful image laden with the pride and economic possibility of home ownership is View of the Train Station.

A depiction of another two-story home, in cool-tone greys, Train Station recalls images of Berlin after WWII or the Bronx in the ’70s. The house stands alone, it’s as if it's already a ghost, with the Beaux-Arts train station opened in 1919 (now Prime Osborne Convention Center) lurking in the background. The only super-saturated color in the image is the safety-orange glow from the cropped construction sign. It's an articulation of indifference in the face of “progress.”

It is haunting.

Ana Kamiar’s works primarily document the built environment. Her images capture the sun-bleached solitude of buildings without humans. Reductive, almost Modernist in feel and formal presentation, the works yet exist within the narrative framework of the show—and not solely because they are images of Jacksonville. They're a part of a dialogue that doesn’t look at the slick new homes going up in the outer neighborhoods of the city, but take as their subject seemingly passive, overlooked, odd spaces. Instant Blank and Parking Party from Kamiar’s Commute to Elementary series (2018) are of the built environment, but they share a curious and clear-eyed sympathy, in addition to the square formatting of Diane Arbus’ portraits.

Considering portraiture, Malcolm Jackson’s works continue his documentation of fascination with Springfield and his peers. Main Street ’16, with a fashionable young man against a ’60s-look textured white wall recalls the imagery of photographer Ricky Powell, but without his photos' palpable, frenetic energy. Like Jackson himself, this composition is considered without affectation.

Also offering insight into the personality of the city are David Williams’ and Toni Smailagic’s pieces. WPDQ Radio Station Come Together Day Tug of War (1997) by Williams is a dramatic, dynamic and joyous image that conjures the delirious delight of good-natured intra-neighborhood contests. The image is so strong that it could only be better if the photographer had eschewed the decision to print on canvas. The piece does not need the implied endorsement of canvas to stand on its own.

Smailagic’s images of gay couples have a clandestine and mildly voyeuristic feel. Especially Issue, the image of two figures kissing in the back seat of a sedan. However, the image is saved from salaciousness by the tenderness and honesty of the lens.

For Jacksonville: A Tale of My City, the entire library has been hung. The first floor houses the show; the second floor houses glossy images by Wes Lester, the city of Jacksonville’s audio-visual production specialist; the third floor is occupied by Bob Self’s work in LaVilla, and the fourth floor features images of that most shameful of days: Axe-Handle Saturday.

The power in the exhibition comes not just from the recognizable “localness” of the work, but the tacit acknowledgement of the failure of the city to keep the promises made under consolidation, an occurrence that reflects the city’s systemic racism.

Jacksonville: A Tale of My City is on view through Oct. 21 at the Main Library Downtown. There are several events that tie into this exhibit that are scheduled at other libraries through Oct. 18; jaxpubliclibrary.org.

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