The relationship between travel photography and fine art photography is the background question surrounding the newest exhibit at the Denver Photo Art Gallery (www.denverphotoart.com) on Santa Fe Drive. Blaine Harrington (blaineharrington.photoshelter.com) and Joe Roybal (his artist handle is Abelino) (www.abelinophotography.com), two individuals who separately travel and photograph around the world, now share an exhibit entitled “Unifying the World through Color”. The exhibit, organized by Gallery curator Kelly Rush, will be shown through March 4.
Denver native Harrington is a seasoned pro, with 250 thousand images in his inventory. Abelino, now living in Colorado, is a young emerging artist who is still building his corpus of work. This exhibit marks the first time either photographer has shown his work to the public. An artists’ reception was held at the gallery on January 21, and Harrington and Abelino provided patrons with commentary, insights, and an extended view of their work via digital slideshows.
The question hanging over this exhibit—I pose the question this way: It’s beautiful, but is it fine art?—can only be answered by each patron who visits the exhibit. I have no doubt that many, especially those awed by the images and colors of exotic peoples and places—presented in drop dead gorgeous prints and mounts prepared by the Gallery’s resident framing genius Tony Eitzel—will answer ‘Yes’, or perhaps even “Are you kidding? Absolutely yes!”
For me the question is best answered “Yes and no”.
After years away and only relatively recently again making his home in Colorado, Harrington has already staked his claim to fame as one of the most successful and honored commercial travel photographers around. His travel images grace the magazines pages of most of the world’s major travel and leisure companies, clothiers, airlines, and major film and camera companies. There is no question that when it comes to commercial travel photography, Harrington is the real deal. More than enough evidence is on display at the exhibit as to why he has won so many awards for his work.
Photography primarily destined for the high end magazine page tends toward overly saturated colors and most of Harrington’s work exhibit this trait. Color saturation is only a technicality—some will like it, some will not. But for me, it is the tangible evidence of what I find flawed in his work from a fine art perspective. While a feast for the eyes—presuming the color saturation doesn’t put you off—I find his work generally ‘commercial’ and ‘soulless’.
I admit to being on weak ground here, as other than the color saturation thing, this sense of soullessness cannot be traced to specific technical aspects of the images. The best I can offer is an analogy. It is akin to the difference one senses when looking at a portrait made by Yousuf Karsh and then at the typical Victoria’s Secret image of a beautiful woman. Both images may be feasts for the eye, but only the Karsh portrait provides insight into the subject’s soul.
Harrington’s work, while beautiful and—other than the over the top color saturation—technically flawless, doesn’t move me. To attribute this to Harrington’s commercial roots may be unfair, but I think that is the cause. In any case I cannot call his work fine art. Others may have different criteria and make a different call.
On the other hand, I find Abelino’s work, although very much more limited in scope, less focused in terms of subject matter, and less technically refined than Harrington’s, to be much more qualified as fine art. Although the exhibit features only a few of Abelino’s prints, the artists’ reception slideshow provided an opportunity to gain a greater sense of this young man’s talent and long term potential.
Unlike Harrington, who often stages his work, none of Abelino’s street photography is choreographed. His images of homeless beggars of London, bazaar workers of Istanbul, and children of Morocco highlight Abelino’s ability to capture with respect—as well as with the artist’s sense of framing and composition—touching moments of the human condition. Two images stand out; one is a moment of pathos, the other of humor.
In “Black and White”, two Marrakech men are squatting by the wall of a building – perhaps a mosque. One is light skinned and enjoying a meal in the light, the other is dark skinned and huddled piteously in shadow. Perhaps the fellow in shadow was well fed and was only trying to get relief from the Moroccan sun. But the image seems to about the unfair balance between light skinned and dark skinned peoples.
In “Monterosso, Italy”, Abelino captured the humorous image of elderly men and women sitting on benches. On the left side of the frame, the women, all nicely dressed, are looking at something to their right (frame left). On the bench positioned on the right side of the frame, an equal number of men, all shabbily dressed, stare off at something to their left (frame right). If you didn’t know already, you’d know from this image that women are from Venus and men from Mars.
Since the time of Cartier-Bresson, the praise ‘decisive moment’ has been overused in the critique of street photography. However sometimes it is deserved and I believe that much of Abelino’s work does.
Abelino’s work is fine art—art that has room for maturation and focus—but fine art all the same. He is a young artist worthy of support, and I will follow the development of his career with interest.
Travel photography is not always fine art but it can be. The works of Harrington and Abelino are proof of that for me.