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Ken Ohara's black and white portraits
in With are exposed for an hour. So, especially for the indoor
photographs, the background is clear and well defined, but the people are
blurred. They stand still for the hour, but inevitably they move a little.
Under each image is the time period during which the photograph was taken --
for example, "12:28pm - 01:28pm." The project was executed in the
late 1990s. The images recall early photographs that demanded long exposures.
The subjects appear ghostly, as if they are not quite present. They sit in
their own homes or in their work places, it seems, looking towards the camera.
For many of the subjects, it is hard to discern clues as to their moods, while
others simply look blank or a bit bored. People sit in chairs, or stand in
their gardens, recline on beds or couches, or lie on the floor. They are men
and women, young and old, bespectacled and not. Some of the women are
topless. Sometimes they have props -- one person holds a broom, another holds a
trumpet, and several people hold onto an object or rest on something to keep
themselves steady. An hour is a long time to try to stay in the same
With is a difficult book to
come to grips with. As with Ohara's other work, One, from 1970, which
contained 500 close-ups of people's faces, each individual picture is
interesting in its own way, but the value of the work is more conceptual, to be
viewed as a whole. One can just think, "that's pretty odd and
spooky," and move on. Ohara himself adds no text to explain his ideas,
although there is a short essay by author Craig
Nova on the experience of being photographed in this way. As with much art
photography, the contribution of the work is not very clear at first. One has
to live the images for a while, looking at them repeatedly, contemplating their
effect, to get a little clearer on what they might mean. The images invite
many interpretations: they could represent the shifting nature of human life
against a static background; they could call into question the idea of a
photograph capturing a person in an instant; they could depict human fragility,
or the unknowability of persons. It could just be a gimmick. Even though
Ohara's work is very distinctive and unsettling, it leaves itself open to many
I'm particularly struck by the
appearance of other photographs within these images. Often, people are shown
with other pictures of them or family in the background, and the contrast
between those small crisp pictures and the haze of the subject is very
striking. A couple of images have movie posters in the background, in which
the dramatically posed stars look incongruous in contrast to the shimmering
real people. So it is especially tempting to speculate that these images are
about the distortions of portrait photography, and they suggest how the
fuzziness of the long exposure provides a better depiction of reality than the
image captured an instant.
Whatever Ohara's intention, these
pictures are definitely intriguing and powerful.
© 2006 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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