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Artful Politics: Beauty From Electoral Chaos

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Until last week I would have defied you to come up with anything that was beautiful about the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida.

No one with walking around sense – regardless of political affiliation – could have viewed the electoral chaos that ensued after George W. Bush and Al Gore stumbled to a dead heat in Florida on Election night three and a half years ago as reflecting well on the way we choose our national leaders.

Did W steal the election? Granted, this may be an unfair question to ask a registered Democrat like me. But whatever misgivings I may have about the fairness of the recount in the Sunshine State, or the Supreme Court's robes-fouling partisanship thereafter, are dwarfed by my disgust over the stumble-footed, slow-witted and sanctimonious campaign run by Al Gore that forced the recount in the first place.

[Trust me: I am about to say very nice things about the wonderful photographs on the right, by Florida-based husband-and-wife photographers Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez, but first the ex-political writer in me has to vent a little.]

Had Gore not run such a lousy campaign – had he, just for one example, let Bill Clinton loose to stump for him in states where Clinton remained hugely popular (rather than shun the outgoing President out of an odd mix of ego, distaste and fear of being eclipsed by a far better politician) the Florida cliffhanger very likely would not have mattered.

And please don't get me started on Ralph Nader – whose ultraliberal good-government ego trip seems finally to have run out of gas for total lack of voter interest, but not before he siphoned away critical Gore votes in campaign 2000, thereby contributing to the chaos that gave us the cowboy in the White House.

The same cowboy who, in turn, has given us the mare's nest in which we now find ourselves in Iraq

There now. I feel so much better. Thank you.

Cuban-born husband and wife photographers Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez have been collaborating for more than two decades and have a slew of prestigious fellowships and grants to show for it. Though much of their work is documentary – their current book, From the Ground Up (Nazraeli Press, $60), beautifully chronicles simple rural dwellings – their images currently on display at Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown are something decidedly more abstract and elegant.

"The Hole Shebang" is a visual symphony of multiple medium format macro images of three pieces of cardboard. But not just any pieces of cardboard. These are paper ballots virtually identical to those used by Florida voters in campaign 2000. And where frazzled campaign workers three-and-a-half years ago saw these ballots as a hellacious challenge to interpret, much less to count (remember hanging chads?) del Valle and Gomez have used the same kind of ballots to create fine art.

"All three ballots are training ballots from the Miami-Dade County 2000 presidential election," Eduardo and Mirta told me in an e-mail, "and, yes, we punched the holes ourselves. We obtained them from a friend."

This is minimalist photography in which ballots of identical color take on a subtle palette through key use of shadow and studio light. It is interesting to see how many ways these two photographers have managed to juxtapose what really are three identical pieces of stiff paper into images that become monumental, not just because of enlargement (the largest prints here are not that huge: 20"x24") but because of the way the pieces are made to relate to each other in space.

"The format is 6x7 (using) color negative film and artificial lighting," the photographers reported. Stir in a hell of a lot of talent and you've got something special.

On a much more conventional level, though just as compelling, are the 17 photographs from the famed photo cooperative Magnum that round out the Hemphill election year exhibition.

The photographs, in color and black and white, span 44 years: from the 1952 GOP national convention in Chicago to a 1996 Christian Coalition rally in San Diego.

There are any number of photojournalism superstars shown here: Cornell Capa, Eve Arnold, Burt Glinn, Hiroji Kubota, to name only a few. Each of the images gives the feeling that the photographer was indeed the proverbial fly on the wall. None of the pictures has anything to do with the canned photo-op mediocrity we have come to expect from latter day political campaigns or from the White House. These hyper-staged events, usually with "message" related backgrounds or backdrops, first came into wide prominence during the Reagan years and found wide usage, not necessarily because picture editors liked them, but because politicians and their handlers so limited other photographic access that there was little else during a news cycle to choose from.

But good photographers have a way of getting behind, around and under such rules, and with inspiration from such forbears as Arnold, Capa, Kubota and Glinn, it's easy to see what drives them to give us the images we need to have.

"The Hole Shebang – Florida Ballots from the 2000 Election," and "VOTE: Presidential Campaign Photographs." Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd St. NW, Georgetown. Through May 29. 202-342-5610. Tues-Sat, 10-5, www.hemphillfinearts.com.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Eduardo del Valle & Mirta Gomez. Courtesy of Hemphill Fine Arts.
Cuban-born husband and wife photographers Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez actually made beauty out of the mess that was the Florida presidential election recount. While these gorgeous medium format abstracts do not show actual ballots that were counted (or miscounted) in 2000, they are "training ballots" and identical to those Floridians had to struggle with when they voted for President. Hung large and on the walls of the Hemphill Gallery in Georgetown, these three images and the others on display create a stunning environment in Hemphill's main gallery.

©Hiroji Kubota, Courtesy of Magnum Photos, Inc.

©Cornell Capa, Courtesy of Magnum Photos, Inc.
The tedium and the tumult of politics. Two of 17 classic political images, from the famed photo cooperative Magnum, that round out the Hemphill Gallery's election year exhibition. In the first, photographer Hiroji Kubota captures two young Nixon volunteers calling potential GOP voters in Greenville, SC, during the ex-Vice President's successful bid for the White House in 1968. In the second photo, made in 1960 by Cornell Capa, candidate John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline greet an ecstatic Manhattan crowd during a ticker-tape parade on Broadway.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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Making Tricky Birthday Pix

Of Diamonds and Dugouts And Polaroid Fantasy

What I Learned in School...

Stand in Ansel's Shoes and Make the Same Pic? (Sure)

What Price Purity? What Level of Skill?

The New FZ-10: If it Ain't Broke...

Muriel Hasbun and the 'Layering of Memories'

Burnett's 4x5: Covering Politics the Hard Way

Leica's Digilux 2: The 'Analog' Digital

Bar-Hopping with Mario: Pix 'In an Easy Way'

The Available Light Wedding

Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better