At the heart of documentary photography lies an epistemological conundrum: What do we know and how do we know it? As anyone who has ever snapped a succession of portraits understands, the camera – even in the space of a few seconds – tells such wildly divergent stories that our ability to ascribe truth to any image (or selection of images) is highly fraught. Yet at the same time, we also believe that the camera tells the truth, even when we know it can be infinitely manipulated.
It was with these issues in mind that I approached Kent Lacin’s documentary series on teen homelessness, “Children of the Wind,” wondering what new truths might be gleaned and, more pointedly, how such an exhibition might negotiate the obvious clichés: the sullen faces, the chain-link fences, the filth, the bedrolls and the “Hungry, Please Help…God Bless” signs?
As it turns out, there’s not much that is conventional in this show of 53 color and B&W prints and digitally created collages. Lacin, a commercial photographer by day and an artist by night, is not an activist by trade. The idea for this series came to him while shooting a Sacramento Bee ad for a local homeless charity. During the job he connected with his subjects so powerfully that he decided to launch a pictorial crusade on behalf of the Wind Youth Center, a nonprofit that provides down-and-out kids with food, shelter, clothing and support. Over a three-year period, Wind introduced Lacin to dozens of other “clients,” and in short increments stolen from his day job, he photographed them in their camps, hangouts and hideaways – most of which are on the river near downtown Sacramento. The results are wide-ranging in tone, treatment, attitude and historical reference. They roam from straight photojournalism and fine art portraiture to hybrids that, in the case of Lacin’s collages, so thoroughly blur the line between painting and photography as to feel groundbreaking.
For inspiration, Lacin looked to August Sander (1876-1964) whose encyclopedic documentation of German society in the early the 20th century set a high water mark for incisive portraiture. Lacin makes no claim to all-inclusiveness. But he does manage to capture certain reoccurring teen archetypes, most of whom seem to be walking life’s tightrope. Squalor, while only occasionally pictured, is largely absent, or if it’s there, it’s shown uninhabited, as an environmental portrait. Lacin also sidesteps easy sensationalism; he doesn’t show anybody shooting up or having sex.
In fact, the most striking thing about this exhibit is how remarkably normal these kids look, despite the fact that many are addicts, prostitutes or have families they’re trying to raise on the streets. Yet even without the luxury of working as an “embedded” documentarian, Lacin captures their psychic turmoil with frontal images in which most of his subjects look directly into the camera. This time-honored method works well because it produces a consequence-free exchange in which viewers think they’re seeing the inner life of the subject.
But are they? Lacin makes you wonder. For example, is the cold, affectless stare in a blunt picture like “Ziggy,” which could easily be viewed as that of a case-hardened gangbanger, really be as murderous as it seems, or has the photographer simply captured a dull gaze? Would successive frames have revealed different information?
In the end we have to trust the artist; and if we take Lacin’s photos at face value, we’re struck by a plethora of telling details – details that not only slice through the often opaque photographer-subject dynamic, but also unearth the very sorts of ironies that form the backbone of 20th century documentary photography, from Walker Evans to Mary Ellen Mark.
“Carrie and Jeremy behind Bat Cave” appears on the surface to be a tender portrait, but it’s not. While Jeremy lays his head lovingly on Carrie’s shoulder and embraces her with one arm, her eyes plead for help. It’s a wrenching image. In “Cathy and Joshua” we see a similar dynamic: he flashes a toothy grin; she stares at the camera with a look of abject sadness. Each seems unaware of the other’s emotions, like two disparate pictures conjoined – except they’re not.
Throughout, Lacin displays a keen skill for capturing these kinds of details. “Barry & Ziggurat,” shows a boy below a riverbank levee with one of Sacramento’s landmark structures, the pyramid-shaped Ziggurat Building, in the background. Long-time Sacramentans remember this as the headquarters of the Money Store, a sub-prime lender that closed here years before such enterprises devoured Wall St. This, of course, isn’t the subject of the picture, but as an insinuating artifact it recalls, in its irony, the New Topographics of the 1970s and 1980s.
“Cherokee with Ice Cream Cone,” a brutally frank, low-angle portrait of a large woman dressed in a billowing yellow T-shirt, turns on another subtle detail: a pink Playboy cap in one hand that matches the color of an ice cream cone in the other. “Jason Behind Fence,” uses a bent link in cyclone fence to frame – and magnify – one of the boy’s eyes. That simple compositional device transforms a staid image into something chilling.
The only problem with this show is that there too many pictures. Sharper editing would have increased the show’s impact.
As it is, there are plenty of strong images, particularly those that reference WPA-style documentation and mid-century street photography. “Jodie and Baby Johnny,” a young mother and her smudge-faced child, and “Justin and Katie,” a weather-beaten couple, both look like they wandered in from “Tobacco Road.” Each could have been made in the Great Depression. “12th & G,” a fugitive image of a boy on a skateboard tearing down a rain-slicked alley, feels like Cartier-Bresson “grab shot.”
Throughout the show ambivalence abounds. “Enrique,” a model-handsome boy, whose face and body are perfectly framed by blackberry brambles, looks like the picture of serenity and health – except that he’s seriously strung out, a fact I learned only later from the artist. Which brings me back to my original point about how pictures can lie and tell the truth simultaneously.
Lacin understands this intuitively. In three large-scale collages, he rips apart the raw material of his “straight” pictures and reassembles them in Photoshop to create photographic “action” paintings, replete with sweeping gestures and distressed surfaces that at a distance appear to have the texture of pigment, but up close flatten out like a photograph.
Treading a fine line between abstraction and representation, they portray the complexities of street life by reconstituting the elements of homeless camps – faces, furniture, clothing, newsprint, bedding, garbage and foliage – as if they were struck by a tornado. They depict, in an almost cinematic fashion, the torment of living en marge by thoroughly blending painterly tropes and photographic effluvia. We’ve heard about the so-called convergence of painting and photography for years, but most of what we’ve seen has been kitschy graphics. In Lacin’s collages we have a real hybrid: pictures that can’t quite be taken for paintings and photographs whose origins are as blurry and fluid as the subjects they portray.
It’s a rare documentary series that critiques its own methods; but in this wide ranging exhibit that draws from so many historical styles, commentary and self-criticism come in the same package. Lacin may have started this project with an activist agenda, but behind the camera (and in front of the computer) it was the artist who prevailed.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Kent Lacin’s “Children of the Wind” closed October 4, 2008 at the CSUS Library Gallery.