Viewers Find Stories In Artist's 'Lost' Images

"Taking It to the Well #2," part of Michael Platt's exhibition, contains an allusion to Ghana's infamous holding cells where slaves were kept before being loaded onto ships. (Photos By Michael Platt)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Walking though "Lost and Found," Michael B. Platt's exhibition of digitally manipulated photos at H&F Fine Arts, you'll see a lot of what the artist calls "girls in nightgowns." It wasn't until after he had shot those brown-skinned models -- sometimes standing, sometimes bowing, sometimes cowering in fear or raising their skirts in jubilant, dancelike poses -- that Platt says the following thought even occurred to him: "They looked to me as if they had to leave their houses in a hurry."

That's the way the Washington native, who calls himself an "image-maker" rather than a photographer, has always worked. Pictures come first, then the stories.

The sense of displacement Platt describes runs subtly through a show that centers on the female figure without celebrating it. For also collaged into Platt's richly poetic prints are visual elements that hint at other, more darkly powerful forces -- specifically, the African slave trade and Hurricane Katrina, each of which drove people from their homes.

Those elements include stray bits of wall texture. You can see some in the upper half of "Taking It to the Well #2." Shot during the artist's trip last year to Elmina and Cape Coast, Ghana, it's an allusion to those West African cities' infamous holding cells -- dungeons, really -- where slaves were kept before being loaded onto ships. Centuries old, Platt says, the walls still bear the stains of human excrement, once piled waist high.

Throughout the show you'll see woods, too. Some of those photographs of trees come from Morgantown, W. Va., a stop along the Underground Railroad. A few pictures show houses. But are we meant to take those buildings as slave quarters, safe houses or, in a more recent reference, homes lost in Katrina? That's left to the viewer's imagination.

The connection between slavery and the Gulf Coast storm of 2005 is not, however, lost on Platt. What still seems fresh in his imagination is the herding of the homeless into the New Orleans Superdome (which itself became a kind of dungeon) and the subsequent search for relocated loved ones, including the artist's own brother. Living in New Orleans at the time of the storm, Roger Platt wound up in Tyler, Tex., where his brother eventually found him.

But all this is a far more literal -- and perhaps more pessimistic -- reading than Platt would like viewers to take from his work.

The show, after all, is called "Lost and Found." That implies, of course, a sense of both mourning and joy.

It's a trick the artist says he learned as an art school undergrad: that working with opposites -- light and dark, hope and hopelessness -- will "always get you out of trouble."

It's a balancing act that Platt has honed to fine art. His images -- troubling one minute, inspiring the next -- dance between sunshine and shadow, between the forever irretrievable past and the promise of the future.

Michael B. Platt: Lost and Found Through May 25 at H&F Fine Arts, 3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier Contact:301-887-0080. Hours: Open Wednesday-Friday 11 to 7; Saturdays 10 to 5; Sundays 11 to 3 Admission: Free. Program: On May 24 from 5 to 6:30, poets Carol Beane, Ken Ford and Maya James will read from their work, followed by a gallery talk by the artist at 7.

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