Kevin Greenblat is a photographer. That, far from being an oversimplification, is a clear and resounding declaration that emanates from his work. For the 25 years that he’s lived in Texas, Greenblat has traveled the world, investing countless resources in the pursuit of pictures. Now, a selection of highlights from the past two decades of his archive is being presented by Davis Gallery in the exhibition Kevin Greenblat – 20 Year Look.
According to Greenblat, his approach to photography has remained pretty consistent over the years. This is backed up by the work, which all belongs to the same lineage of street photography that dates back as far as there has been film sensitive enough to freeze motion. But Greenblat puts himself in the world as it is today, and the world responds. While he acquiesces a bit to what he calls the “photography gods” — the little, uncontrollable movements of life that can act for or against a person hoping to record spontaneously with a camera — he also asserts that it is a combination of persistent work and joy, with just a dash of luck, that leads to his best photographs. On top of everything else, visitors to the exhibit will receive a workshop in the merits of careful attention.
For example, take the photograph Day of the Dead Gathering – Guanajuato, Mexico. Here, a group of five adults and four children are seen dressed in what appears to be traditional Diá de los Muertos attire, complete with ornate calcala face paint. Greenblat’s image is tightly cropped, with the shoulders of the outside figures grazing up against the edges of the frame. Only two sets of feet can be seen: one boy’s skeletal jumpsuit is complete with printed-on bony toes, while the other boy wears Converse. The photographer is situated at an incredibly low vantage point, beneath even the eyes of the children. All nine figures tower over the photographer.
So costumed, the skeletal paint draws significant attention to their eyes, showing that they are looking in different directions. All the adults and one child look off to one side, as if a captivating event is occurring behind Greenblat, on his left. One girl, maybe a bit sullen, stares at the ground. To her side, the boy in tennis shoes rolls his eyes, perhaps sarcastically, upwards, with his hands at the small of his back. Even though this is a slight fidget, it becomes easy to imagine a whole scenario of inter-sibling pestering going down between these two.
Only one of the revelers peers directly at the camera. She just happens to be the frontmost child, prominent on the right side of the frame and in perfect balance to all the gazes cast off to the left. Her hands pick at the waist of her costume, and she looks intently into the lens. Her relationship to the other revelers is made more curious by this interaction. Is she the older sister, exasperated by her siblings’ antics, briefly entering the photographer’s world in search of commiseration? Who can say? The complex dynamics between the children and the photographer, though not immediate, lend an air of subtle drama to this picture that pushes it beyond mere cultural observation and allows it to be seen as a celebration — of childhood, or maybe of photography — in and of itself.
There is another picture, taken on the other side of the border, which portrays similarly striking dynamics that move beyond the initial read. Mardi Gras Riders – Lota, Louisiana shows four elaborately costumed human figures standing upright atop the backs of four saddled horses. The horses all stand in an expanse of shallow water that extends beyond the frame of the photograph in three directions, and the entire scene is reflected with high fidelity in the water beneath their hooves.
The mirror image of the riders’ tall, pointed, clownish hats lines up with the bottom edge of the picture. Meanwhile, the riders themselves are framed entirely above the horizon, suspended in the cloudy sky. Three of the horsemen wear full-face masks with grotesque noses. The fourth, who once again happens to be the figure on the far right of the photograph, is maskless. His horse is also slightly more removed from the other three animals. The rider second to the left stares across the frame directly at the maskless man, his cartoonishly long nose rendered in profile. The maskless one is looking directly at the photographer, his expression unexpected, confused, and vulnerable. While the costumes and postures surrounding him portray pride, he looks tired. “They were all really hung over by that point,” says Greenblat, when asked about Mardi Gras Riders. Further, he reveals that the unmasked man is a friend of his, another photographer. It was the very last shot of the day.
“I’m really in there,” he says of his process, “I’m fully engaged in the situation.” He stresses how important it is for him to make photographs in places he loves, be it the peaceful expanses of West Texas or frenetic New Orleans.
In 20 Year Look, these locales are represented by large-scale prints that Greenblat says take on “a life of their own” and are “so much richer and more immersive” than the same images on a screen. He says he can recall the circumstances surrounding photos made twenty years ago as clearly as the ones from yesterday.
Through the prints, viewers may be able to approach something like their own versions of these experiences. Perhaps that is how it goes when a skilled photographer makes pictures in a resonant place. But in another twenty years, Greenblat jokes, he will put together an exhibition of photographs from places he hates visiting. When asked where those photos might be made, he pauses for a few seconds before deciding: “Florida.”
Kevin Greenblat – 20 Year Look is on view at Davis Gallery in Austin, Texas from October 22 – November 19, 2022. An opening reception for the show will be held on October 22 from 4-7 PM.