By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; C01
Any art festival is only as good as the best work it turns up. Every day this week, I'll be looking at a single image out of FotoWeek DC, an annual celebration of photography at galleries across the city, that makes doing the rounds worthwhile.
The Pepco gallery at Edison Place is hosting a survey of graduates from the excellent photo programs at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. (The Corcoran is also acting as headquarters for this year's FotoWeek.) The best image in it is by Jenny Yang, who graduated in photojournalism last spring. She was also chosen by my colleague Jessica Dawson as a finalist in the Post's Real Art D.C. contest. I had hoped she would win.
"Eros" shows a snapshot view inside Yang's parents' modest liquor store on West Pratt Street in Baltimore, taken from behind the cashier's desk. The image is much stranger than it sounds.
Around the edges of the photo, you see the messy store itself: a soda fridge; bottles of cheap wine; a box of O'Doul's zero-alcohol beer, all there, blurry in the background. And in the foreground on the desk, but a bit off to one side, is a filthy old CRT monitor, in IBM beige, that seems dedicated to paying bills and cashing checks for clients, just as you'd expect in such a mom-and-pop operation. But then, filling up the middle of Yang's image, is a new flat-screen monitor -- a Samsung SyncMaster 2200 -- glossy black and high-tech, perched in the center of the desk.
The contrast with the decrepit space, and with the rest of Yang's photo, is striking. It's as though a segment of a Samsung ad had been pasted into Yang's scruffy image of her parents' store. A reminder that the official view of our consumer culture, as bright as it's supposed to be, comes surrounded by how a lot of it really pans out.
The monitor seems so new and shiny, compared with what's around it, that it feels almost virtual, like a bit of CGI set into our quotidian reality. And then Yang's image gets even stranger, because the gloss of the actual, physical monitor gets bumped up another notch in the slick graphics of the software window that's filling the screen. Some programmer has rendered its every button and scroll bar and tab with an oily slick of reflection, as though it represents a perfect binary world without the glitches and dirt that flesh is heir to. (If you were as buggy as most computer programs, you'd try to look flawless on the surface, too.)
To complicate Yang's image further, it turns out that the program open in that window is a video player, which is busy giving us a view into some movie's fictional reality -- a view that is even lower-res, and scruffier, than anything we see blurred in Yang's background. All we see on screen is a beautiful young Asian woman lying on an unmade bed, looking up with worry as someone else approaches, while the words "Eros2009" sit in the window's title bar.
Your first assumption is that the computer's flashy software is delivering up tawdry porn, in keeping with the store's dirty bill-cashing monitor and the low-end liquor sitting nearby. With a bit of Googling, however (smartphones can be an art lover's best friend), you discover that the movie, a compilation of five Korean directors' short films on love, is actually arty and high-end.
The visuals in this photograph play out like nesting dolls, with a fuzzy film inside a sparkling high-res window viewed on a shiny screen perched within the scruffiest of interiors -- all displayed in Yang's immaculately printed shot. Its content stacks, too, making us leapfrog from an inner-city culture of liquor to an Asian culture of technophilia to a culture of cheap porn -- that turns out to be a culture of fine film, all presented in a photo taken by a second-generation immigrant immersed in a culture of art.
The Corcoran's All Photo Alumni Exhibition
runs through Dec. 17 at Pepco's Edison Place Gallery, 702 Eighth St. NW. Call 202-872-3396 or visit http://www.fotoweekdc.org.