The Left-Coast Lens

Feeling noirish? Go see "The Gray Area" at the Wattis.

More than 25 years ago, Bay Area photographers Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel sorted through thousands of photos from the archives of corporations, scientific research facilities, and police departments, then compiled 50 enigmatic images into a groundbreaking book called Evidence. By appropriating institutional shots without context or explanation – including a large, amorphous lump of foam and a stand of trees near an ominous-looking man-made structure – and calling them art, the duo shook up the contemporary photography scene and influenced artists around the world. Now Sultan and Mandel's rare and revolutionary prints are showcased with the work of 22 other local artists from the last 30 years in “The Gray Area – Uncertain Images: Bay Area Photography 1970s to Now” at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.

The show's title is both a sardonic play on our geographic location and an allusion to the relationship between ambiguity and the photographic image. The latter concept first became pronounced in the 1970s, as Bay Area artists, inspired by the counterculture, challenged documentary-style traditions with dark, gritty back-stories informed by film noir and detective fiction. Unlike the typical romantic images of golden sunlit skies or billowy rolls of fog perched on mountain peaks often associated with local photography, these pessimistic, nighttime narratives explored the uncertain psychological relationships of everyday scenes.

This murky sense of estrangement is captured in Jim Jocoy's pictures of the early punk movement in San Francisco and Los Angeles – recently collected into the book We're Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, SF/LA 1978-1980. As in Untitled (Carla Mad Dog), in which the vacant stare of a black punk is caught by the camera's flash, Jocoy's intimate portraits of individuals removed from their larger social-group identities seem more melancholy than menacing.

A similar tension is echoed in the more recent work of Todd Hido, a 1996 graduate of the California College of the Arts, whose large color photographs capture the exteriors of urban homes in the foggy night. Often illuminated by a single window or streetlights, the dwellings transform into eerie, isolated fortresses, suggesting a physical as well as psychological distance from the outside world.

But the exhibit isn't solely inspired by isolation. According to Matthew Higgs, curator of the gallery affiliated with CCA, the show is also meant to act as an ongoing dialogue between generations of home-grown photographers, many of whom have worked together at CCA and the San Francisco Art Institute.

“I was interested in the fact that many of the younger artists in the show have been taught by the older generations,” he says. “Perhaps even informally, as you go through the exhibition, you can see there's a legacy in the relationship between a number of the key artists in the show who are very much involved and continue to be involved in art education.”

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