The Photographer as Customs Inspector: Judgment Mars the Focus

Documenting lost -- or maybe just odd --
Documenting lost -- or maybe just odd -- "tribes": "March With Alpenhorns" and "Roni and Priscilla Kirchheimer" are among the photos by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. (Photos Courtesy University Of Maryland Baltimore County)
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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington
Friday, February 29, 2008


There's a whiff of "The Sexual Life of Savages" and "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" inside the exhibition "Andrea Robbins and Max Becher: Portraits" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Like anthropologists, Robbins and Becher document tribes. The photographers, who met in college in 1984 and are now married, favor groups transformed by colonialism or exile. Yet the pictures and text on view in their sizable, and vexing, show too often reveal more about the pair's manipulations than their subjects' experiences.

Accounts of the artists' process read like fieldwork reports. The duo spend time among various groups -- "weeks," the exhibition text boasts, though that figure seems awfully inadequate. "They interview [the community's] residents and participate in their rituals and customs," writes curator Maurice Berger in a catalogue essay. "They photograph them in various, active stages of work, play and home life."

Robbins and Becher may have attended many rituals, but their images, while beautifully composed and presented, share the sightlines of the tourist. Observing the pageantry of Namibia's Herero Day festival, the artists capture participants in the ceremonial garb of the occasion as if they were watching the spectacle from the sidelines. The same strategy holds for the Mayfest events of Leavenworth, Wash., where the couple shoot a passing parade from a spectator's angle. Robbins and Becher also produce plenty of staged portraits -- pictures that don't exactly capture "active stages of work, play and home life."

Eight series are presented here. Some focus on ethnic groups changed by adaptation and assimilation: Jews exiled to the Dominican Republic during the Holocaust; Namibians registering the continued effects of German colonial occupation; descendants of freed American slaves relocated to the Dominican Republic's Saman┬┐ Peninsula in the 1820s.

To this mix Robbins and Becher add curiosities. There's the cultural cross-dressing of Leavenworth, a former logging town that decided to remake itself as a Disney-ish little Bavaria -- complete with Mayfest, ordinance-mandated German Gothic signage, and parades with alpenhorns -- to generate tourism for the city's flagging economy. There are the Germans who annually dress up as Native Americans in the name of preserving that culture. And there are the buff bodies of recently released "Star Wars" action figures, which the photographers compare with the less well-built figures issued back in the 1970s. (These are the only non-humans in the show.)

On the face of it, these artists' intentions seem admirable. They investigate migration and its effects. They look at which rituals are retained from home and which ones slough off in new environments. They acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining racial or religious identity in the face of larger political forces. They highlight human foibles and our strategies for survival.

Yet another force is at work here. It appears in the sizable text panels written by the artists.

In these panels we learn that the Maypole dancers belong to a faux-Bavarian community, not an echt one. We learn that the Germans who dress up as Native Americans have, in the eyes of Robbins and Becher, failed because they don't keep track of which artifacts and customs derive from which tribe. The photographers' texts expose real hypocrisies, to be sure. But Robbins and Becher also come off as scolds.

When the couple's exposure of cultural blind spots lacks sensitivity, it verges on callousness. Photos of Namibians engaged in a ceremony commemorating a 1904 rebellion against German colonialists hang alongside three long paragraphs detailing the African nation's occupation, its fight against oppression and its 1990 independence. Robbins and Becher write that cultural events instituted in recent years "present an opportunity for the new leadership to . . . redefine national identity."

According to the photographers' text, however, opportunities to shake off the past have failed. Women participating in this ceremonial event wear outfits "visibly influenced by the 19th century Victorian dresses that the German colonialists brought with them." As for the men, they wear suits "closely modeled on World War I German military uniforms." Somewhere in here is the implication, however subtle, that this group is powerless to redefine itself and, possibly, perpetuating its history.

Couched in the language of description and detachment, the photographer's judgments interrupt our own engagement with the subject. These manipulations grate.

When Robbins and Becher succeed, however, they reveal extraordinary contradictions. Each photograph in the series called "Figures" pairs a "Star Wars" figurine released in the 1970s with the same figure -- Darth Vader, Princess Leia, C3PO -- re-released in the 1990s. We scope out the group and see what's changed: the recent figures boast six-packs, bulging biceps and narrower waists. Both their femininity and their masculinity have ballooned. Here the accompanying text points out the differences while offering minimal judgment. We're free to explore and think on our own.

A similarly evenhanded series documents a Hasidic community that grew up around a kosher meat plant built in Iowa in the late 1980s. Robbins and Becher's images of the community show youth playing catch, men packing groceries and workers biking to the plant. One gentlemen in a crisp white shirt, black pants, yarmulke and long beard mows his lawn. Here, Robbins and Becher's pictures expose the challenges and incongruities that arise when one culture meets another.

Devoid of manipulation and reliant on the couple's sharp eyes, these pictures offer the best outcome of the duo's social ingratiation. Here, Robbins and Becher enjoy the privilege of observing rather than judging.

Andrea Robbins and Max Becher: Portraits, at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through March 22. 410-555-ARTS,

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