It is said that bohemians will always be with us. Or was that the poor? Probably the poor; after all, most of America has become increasingly corporate as even former bohemian epicenters like San Francisco and New York have become more and more yuppified. Similar tendencies are also spreading like cat's claw vine in this city, but to a lesser extent. Blessedly incorrigible at some inexplicable level, this is still one of the last places where it is safe to be who you are -- whoever you are.
Which is something to celebrate, and Mick Vover, a Bywater habitue from Australia, has done just that in his photos of the nocturnal denizens of our bohemian demimonde. Focusing on "facets of life other than work and wealth that are still valued and celebrated," his black-and-white documentary shots feature what his gallery calls "a cast of eccentric and raw characters that inhabit the downtown faubourgs." Most live up to their billing.
In the title shot, Daylight Is Dangerous, a shrouded creature, probably a Caucasian female, stands amid the seedy asymmetry of Bywater rooftops, shielding herself against the blazing incursions of daylight. Thoughts of old Kenneth Anger films, fabric-store remnants, new-wave Taliban dadaism and revisionist theories of evolution all come to mind. Whatever it is, corporate America it ain't. The same holds true for Katzen and the Enigma, in which a guy with a shaved head and bared incisors displays a body that is tattooed from top to bottom to resemble so many puzzle pieces. His swooning lady friend is covered in designs best described as Batman baroque, and together they seem as simpatico as a latter-day Ozzie and Harriet, or at least their goth equivalent.
Although many goths are rather sweet, Vover seems determined to preserve the image of night creatures with teeth in shots like the one of a guy with a black shirt and black shades clutching a five spot in his tattooed talons. By his side, a retro-looking babe wears rayon panties over her 1950s coif, and while it looks like a typical night at the Audubon Hotel in the old days, it's titled Trailer Trash Xmas Bash at the John. An actual old-times-at-the-Audubon shot appears next to it, in which a babe in Nazi officer's cap and skimpy black latex looks almost innocent despite it all -- especially compared to Mistress Veronica at the Pearl, an upper-body view of an imposing, if shadowy, lady in a black bodice, entwined in the slithery cool caress of a long, pale snake.
Presumably, it's all in a night's work, and while such images might be stunt-like or faux-shocking in the hands of a less-deft lensman, Vover's stuff is so incisively there, so preternaturally present, that his prankishly cynical subjects take on an aura of hyper-reality -- even as they attempt to subvert reality. For a not-so-well known artist, this photographic walk on the wild side makes for an impressive Julia Street debut.
Michelle Elmore's poster-size color photos on the walls at Arthur Roger are also new to Julia, but unlike Vover, her earlier work was known for its uncanny mix of sweetness and rawness. This show is more like sugar, spice and everything nice -- after all, that's what little girls are supposedly made of, and little girls are much in evidence here. My Back Yard is a large and lovely print of an African-American girl wearing a long dress as she poses amid the substantial limbs of a big fig tree. Her braided tresses dangle like the creepers of the ever-present vines and, like most of the surrounding images, it's all so cute and innocent. So much so, that I warily expected to see a discreet insurance company logo, or maybe a slogan advertising children's products. Unlike the surreal irony of earlier Elmore shows, this stuff is almost relentlessly pleasant, but at a time when larger-than-life innocence can only be viewed with a modicum of suspicion, the underlying question is how much niceness is just right. Our conditioning is such that we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for such is the human condition, American style. Elmore is a talented photographer; it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
- Bywater photographer Mick Vover captures the bohemian demimonde (and circus freak show performers) in photos like Katzen and the Enigma.