Faces and Places

I went to Michael Joseph Photography and Artists' Haven Gallery expecting one thing and got another altogether. What I expected, more or less, was a traditional art gallery with Joseph's black-and-white photos lining the walls. What I got was a display space in transition, which in this case proved to be much more compelling.

Joseph has been knocking around South Florida for years. He previously had galleries in the Victoria Park neighborhood and on Dixie Highway just south of Five Points in Wilton Manors. Last November, he took over the Fort Lauderdale gallery previously known as Artists' Haven and kept the name, envisioning a space for showcasing not only his own work but that of other artists. The typically slow summer season in particular, he reckoned, would be a good time to share the gallery with other artists of similar sensibilities.

He's still working out the details, but his ambitious plans are admirable, especially in gallery-starved Broward County. When I visited, he had about half a dozen oil paintings by Keith Clark on display. Clark almost invariably divides his canvases into big blocks of bold color and applies the pigment with intentional crudeness. The spare, methodical compositions and Clark's gestural ferocity have a certain appeal, but I'm not sure how well they fit in here. Lois Ostrov's watercolors and Janet Gold's oil pastels, on the other hand, have more in common with the aesthetic at work in Joseph's photography. Both use stylized architectural motifs that are comfortably at home among Joseph's many "portraits" of buildings.

I wish that, instead of devoting pretty much a whole wall to Clark's paintings, Joseph would bring out more of his own work. It would almost certainly play well off the mostly black-and-white rock 'n' roll photography displayed on the opposite wall, the bulk of it by Elliott Landy, supplemented by a handful of shots by Baron Wolman.

Conceptually, Joseph is already there. He talks about how Landy and Wolman specialized in the icons of the music world of the 1960s, while his own specialty is the iconic architecture of major cities. "Famous faces and famous places" is how he puts it at one point. A few minutes later, he quotes his wife, who has connections in the music business, characterizing the gallery as "where art and music embrace."

Wolman was the first chief photographer at Rolling Stone, a position he held from about 1967 to 1970, and the handful of black-and-white shots here date to that era. A portrait of Jimi Hendrix performing at the Fillmore East in 1968 rubs shoulders with a Jerry Garcia picture that ended up on a 1969 cover of the magazine. A 1967 image of Steve Miller shot to accompany a Rolling Stone interview later became the cover of Miller's Anthology record; Joseph has a vintage vinyl copy of the album that he hopes to have Miller sign when he's in South Florida for an upcoming concert at the Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton.

Other Wolman works include a shot of Pete Townshend performing at the San Francisco Bay-area Cow Palace in 1967 and an image that captures Mick Jagger's larger-than-life presence as he performs at a 1969 concert in Oakland, California (Keith Richards, appropriately blurry, can be seen in the bottom-left corner). My favorite Wolman is a soft-focus portrait of Johnny Cash, caught in a pensive moment at the Circle Star Theater in 1967. Formally dressed, holding a cigarette in his right hand, he's somehow elegant and world-weary at the same time.

Landy wasn't a fixture at Rolling Stone like Wolman but was no less connected in the rock 'n' roll cosmos — he was the official photographer for the Woodstock festival, where he took many photos that have since become woven into the fabric of rock history. A lot of his shots went on to become album covers, and Joseph has paired some of the framed ones with signed copies of the corresponding vinyl. A color closeup of Van Morrison, for instance, hangs on the wall above an autographed copy of Moondance that incorporates the shot into its design. The famous hat-tipping shot of Bob Dylan (a Landy favorite) used for the cover of Nashville Skyline appears, uncropped, above a signed copy of the LP.

The Landy list goes on: Eric Clapton, circa the Derek and the Dominos era; Jim Morrison at the Fillmore East in 1968; Janis Joplin, same place, same year; the Band's Levon Helm, bearded and playing a mandolin, also at the Fillmore East in 1968. My personal favorite: a night-on-the-town 1968 group shot of filmmaker Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, and musician Tim Buckley at Max's Kansas City in New York, captured with such casual intimacy that you might as well be sitting at the table with them. A close runner-up is the gorgeous sepia-toned shot of the Band that was included in the gatefold of Music From Big Pink.

These are indeed iconic images, or at least images of iconic figures. Joseph, by contrast, is drawn to urban icons of a different sort, specifically buildings or other structures that preoccupy him at the expense of people. You have to look long and hard to find even the suggestion of a human presence in a typical Joseph photograph. And that's not a bad thing.

As a photographer for hire, Joseph shoots portraits and such, but when he's true to his artistic calling, the result is almost always a building or a fragment of a building that, by virtue of the absence of people, draws on negative space for its impact. After close scrutiny of Downtown Cab, a street-level shot in Manhattan that includes taxis and other vehicles, I could only speculate that a nebulous figure on a curb was actually a human being, which is just as the artist intended.

Joseph remembers traveling to New York from rural Connecticut as a young man and being mesmerized by the buildings. That fascination continues to this day and continues to yield memorable images. His Brooklyn Bridge crops the famous landmark down to an excerpt of its arches and calls attention to the cables, which here look almost like lengths of barbed wire.

A miniature triptych in Joseph's office combines Downtown Cab, Bridge and Hoops (which pushes the Brooklyn Bridge into the background), and Flat Iron to reinvigorate our perception of these familiar New York street scenes. Sometimes, the photographer gets so caught up in the spatial qualities of architecture that he ends up with images more abstract than pictorial. Spiral formations, in particular, seem to bring out the abstractionist in him.

One work that has brought Joseph significant attention is a shot that initially caught his eye because of its geometric juxtapositions but has since taken on a heightened emotional charge. The photo looks up at the World Trade Center towers from a distance of many blocks and partially fills the empty space between them with a simple cross atop a church. As you can imagine, after 9/11, the image was much in demand as a solemn signifier of what is no longer there.

Joseph still has a good distance to cover before his gallery lives up to his promise. But he's fully aware that his is a space in transition, and he's full of ideas about how to achieve his goals for it. And as said recently, if his gallery doesn't make it, the real tragedy will not be his own personal failure but the failure of the Fort Lauderdale area to sustain yet another worthwhile gallery. To which I can only add, "Amen."

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Michael Mills