Darkness and light

Humanities Center Gallery hosts Jason Tannen’s black-and-white Visions of Gotham photographs

I SEE DEAD CITIES The photographer, Jason Tannen, looks away from his “Hotel Lobby, New York, 1988”

I SEE DEAD CITIES The photographer, Jason Tannen, looks away from his “Hotel Lobby, New York, 1988”

Photo By Tom Angel

The disembodied heads of seven men, two women and an infant hover impossibly in the brightly lit storefront window, book-ended by bars of total darkness. The smiles are strained, overeager, and seem, if possible, fearful of succumbing to the night ("Photography Studio, New York, 1987").

Such is the world of Jason Tannen, Chico State’s University Art Gallery director, and art and art history lecturer, in his Visions of Gotham photography exhibition. Many pieces earn their high creepiness factor through stark contrasts between all-encompassing nighty-night blacks and the rays of light that illuminate lonely, lifeless scenes. It is an alienation in the depths of a city; where there is more “man-made” than man.

“Much of my work has been inspired by film noir, the French term for American films from the 1940s and ‘50s that took a dark and foreboding look at life in the city,” writes Tannen. Indeed, many of his pieces do not include people at all, focusing instead on what is left behind in the darkness once the humans have gone home.

In “Hotel Lobby, New York, 1988,” a black telephone without numbers or a dial squats blankly next to an empty paper cup. There is little other sign of a manager, or guests. The glass surrounding the office is opaque—one cannot see in, nor, from the inside, out.

At the “Anchor Grill, Newport, Kentucky, 1985,” above a jukebox, perched high near the ceiling, wait a band of miniature, automated marionettes. The female singer seems odd next to the drummer and horn player, and then I see it: Her face and body are only half as wide as his. A porthole in the restaurant door looks on to nothing.

Tannen asserts that “some scenes suggest a world beyond reach, with substitutes for real experience: store mannequins standing in for real children, painted vistas suggesting escape from the urban landscape, tantalizing images of commercial desire.”

In “New York, 2001,” such a “substitute” is not immediately apparent. We look in on a second-hand store, with ominous child mannequins sporting incongruous floral island themed-shirts. The creepy, oddly un-human youngster out front gesturing inward with a plastic hand is just that, plastic.

“I am drawn to film noir’s urban landscape with its desolate streets, deep shadows and evocations of mystery and anxiety,” Tannen explains.

“Many of these photographs are without people. The human presence, however, is often just around the corner—implied by vacant storefronts, deserted lunch counters, and empty telephone booths.”

Four empty Formica-topped tables, four clean black ashtrays, each with four vacant chairs. The last table to the left glows in the sun ("Luncheonette, San Diego, 1992").

In “Lexington, Kentucky, 1979,” a line of posters displaying the heads of politicians jockey for position as hopeful “democrats for the eighties.” The pin-striped legs of a man stride by purposefully, casting a shadow on their faces.

A neon sign in the window announces “Big Wig Burgers.” A man in the window is caught in the act of putting fries in his mouth. The patrons are all solos, celebrating a lonely meal ("Wigg’s Grill, Newport, Kentucky, 1985").

A few photographs fall short, lacking the anxiety necessary to sustain interest. A statue, a Buddha, a window full of chocolates. Yet on the whole, Tannen achieves his goal of highlighting the discomfort and isolation often found in the paradox that is a city, and I leave the hallway of photos seeking out some flesh and blood.