Through a reflective lens: ‘Postcards from America’

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“At the State Fair.

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Postcards from America, on view through Oct. 19 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, uses the idea of a postcard like a diving platform. The artists make the concept a jumping-off point for plunging into pools of local culture. Each diver makes a splash and interprets the idea in an individual style. There’s no imagining the postcard as a cutesy, trite image or the reduction of a place into a static symbol here — those stereotypes are firmly quashed by the varied interests of the exhibition’s 11 photographers. 

MAM’s exhibit is exclusive to the city, but the fifth part of an overarching national series. The Postcards from America project was initiated in 2011 and has previously focused on the American Southwest, Utah, Florida and Rochester, New York. The photographers made their way to Milwaukee between August 2013 and April 2014, spending a few weeks apiece here. Their home bases vary — some live elsewhere in the U.S., others abroad — but they’re all connected through Magnum Photos, an international cooperative that has promoted documentary and street photography since 1947. 

When you set up house in a new place for a while, everything you see and experience is colored by novelty. Each street corner is different, each local peculiarity fascinates. Postcards from America taps into that subjectivity of vision, with each photographer filtering the images through memories or resonant personal history. In this way, the exhibition becomes a reflector, revealing the photographer’s own curiosities more than universal truths. 

Donovan Wylie, in his project titled The Preparatory City, juxtaposes modernist glass office blocks with the graceful embellishments of the Mitchell Building. It’s a concept that could exist nearly anywhere, but a location specific to downtown Milwaukee. Countless factors shape a city’s sense of place, and one of them is the way historic and modern construction layer on top of each other to create a quirky blended family. Wylie’s presentation of this in photographic form offers an opportunity to pause and consider how the past often remains present.

Other photographers explore community more than place, picturing events like street festivals and the State Fair. Bruce Gilden is drawn to Milwaukee’s faces, particularly those of women who are not unmarred by age and experience. The images are presented in a way that feels more like a study of line and texture than portraits of individuals — less studies of character than appearance.

One of the more personal installations belongs to Zoe Strauss. Her work centers on the murder of Evon Young, a promising, 22-year-old transgender hip-hop artist who went by the moniker Yung LT. Part visual narrative, part memorial, the work includes photographs, ephemera and words of mourners to reflect on the sadness.

Also fixating on individual experience is Susan Meiselas, who explores the often-unseen labor of women in factories. Brand names like Harley-Davidson or Johnsonville Sausage are well-known, but the faces behind the factory walls are not. Meiselas photographs women at work and includes their commentary on their jobs, peering into the work that fills so much of the time of life itself. 

Some photographers lean toward the traditions of art photography, like Jacob Aue Sobol. He visited Wisconsin last winter, traveling the shore of Lake Michigan up to Lake Superior. Along the way, he captured stark, sharply contrasted black-and-white photographs of faces young and old alike, as well as landscapes and stairwells that hint at a mysterious nature.

The exhibition feels rather like a form of contemporary cultural anthropology — highlighting details of daily life and work, what people enjoy and where they live. But even as we learn more about the hidden corners of the city and region around us, the camera lens distinctly reflects each photographer’s own experience, approach and angle of vision as well.

AFTER DARK

The Milwaukee Art Museum will keep its lights on a bit longer on Aug. 15 for the latest installment of MAM After Dark, a monthly art party. The evening takes its cue from Postcards From America with the museum soliciting Milwaukeeans’ photos of the city for display. Even if you can’t attend, post your Milwaukee image to Twitter with the hashtag #mamafterdark to have it included.

Libations will flow, with craft cocktail samples, plus a cash bar. Café Calatrava will offer a selection of tasty snacks, and music comes courtesy of The New Seven and I’m Not a Pilot. There also will be a photo booth to visually capture the fun. Admission is free for museum members; signing up for membership at the door will get you and a plus-one in for free. Other ticket options include purchasing advance admission ($9 plus fees) online or paying $14 at the door. 

6 p.m.-midnight .

Gallery talk at 7 p.m.

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