Our daily spectacle
Photographer brings everyday life into focus
In “Girl Waiting, San Francisco,” a young girl’s gaze meets that of the onlooking camera with minimal affect. She appears slightly apprehensive, perhaps cautious, not quite threatened, if a little anxious. Neither smiling nor frowning, neither bored nor angry, she expresses little of her interiority to the observer as she holds, maybe clutches, a bag of items. Her senses are half closed off from her viewer: her hearing attuned to her headphones rather than outward and her even look putting her at half-attention.
Photographer Tom Patton’s current exhibition at the 1078 Gallery, The Spectacle of Ordinary Spectators, considers subjects in the midst of everyday life. The girl waiting in this photo is framed carefully—her cherry red skirt set off against the cold gray stone she leans so slightly against and calling back to the blip of red hanging on her necklace and resting against her chest. She is captured in the act of interrupted waiting, an everyday activity turned cautious curiosity.
In his exhibit, ordinary acts are granted grandeur by the attention of the camera, transformed into the uncanny when subjected to sustained inspection, or remain very little changed by observation—truly capturing what everyday, non-spectacular living may look or feel like. Patton’s camera lingers on strangers and loved ones, faces that meet its scrutiny directly with an array of expressive and inexpressive reactions. The collection is a studied exploration of the ways photography creates or defeats alienation or otherness among strangers and those we know, how people communicate gently or with difficulty, and the unsteady relationships between real and imagined encounters.
There is exceptional skill on display in these photographs that vibrate with light and precision, toggling back and forth between spontaneous and exquisitely composed moments. Patton has been working with the medium since the 1970s, having studied the history and craft of photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of New Mexico, working with such luminaries as art historian Beaumont Newhall. He now teaches and heads the photography area of the Chico State Art Department, teaching both studio and history courses in photography. Patton has been particularly interested in the emerging Photo-realist and New Topographics movements, and his works sometimes retain and call back to their standards, offering crisp visual clarity and taking up the relationship of figures to the shifting landscape and the modern world.
This collection primarily considers figures working through, or perhaps inertly reacting to, the complexities of relating to one another in the crowded world. Patton’s work in this particular exhibition is the pared down product of an archive of nearly 11,000 photographs taken in recent years. And each minor facial expression of the subjects on display, however small or seemingly innocuous, takes on something of significance with the knowledge that out of thousands of ordinary moments, these are the few chosen for representation.
For Patton, The Spectacle of Ordinary Spectators is a sampling of a sustained meditation on the nature of looking and the habits of attention. His camera stares and intervenes, adores and adulates. Its perspective may focus and insist on the unwitting as in “Woman Annoyed,” or on the anonymous and turned away, with no reciprocity or interaction with its operations as in “Jeff and Jeffy.” In “British Couple Texting,” a triptych series, Patton gives us images of teenagers first consumed by their devices, but soon noticing that they are being documented. We watch their attention theatrically shift, and in that process we also, remarkably, watch our own.