“We, as human beings, go around and we build these huge structures, and then we kind of don’t notice them,” said photographer Art Domagala during a recent phone interview. “They kind of become the background and we go about our daily business.”
Domagala’s photography series People vs. Structure is on display at Reno’s Sierra Arts Gallery through Sept. 5, with an artist’s reception on Aug. 21 at 5 p.m. The series consists of black and white photos of various sizes, with stunning detail and careful compositions, depicting people—usually lone individuals or pairs—in close proximity with towering, impressive pieces of architecture. The series highlights a strange, symbiotic paradox: the buildings dwarf people, but they were created by people.
The title of the show presents this paradox as a conflict, but the photographs themselves have a quiet, almost lonely, tranquility, partly because so many of them depict individuals alone, sitting, standing or walking.
“I tried to capture these moments when you see someone or maybe a couple of people … and they’re kind of isolated against these huge structures that humans build,” said Domagala. “I’m fascinated that people are intelligent enough to build these structures. These are our cultural artifacts. Wherever people go, buildings will be erected eventually. Buildings are a dominant part of our everyday landscape.”
The show features different kinds of urban environments: narrow, old European streets, new, high-tech modern buildings, and dirty American alleyways, including some in Reno. One image features a Reno alley with the sign for the shuttered Old Reno casino. The alley is split evenly—half in shadow and half in light—and a newer building looms in the background, with a lone figure walking in the gap. Another Reno image features City Hall, a retooled bank building, the building reflecting clouds, as a lone individual sits in the nearby plaza in what appears to be quiet contemplation.
Domagala is originally from the Detroit area, but launched his photography career here in Reno. He was active in the local art scene, doing photography professionally, exhibiting his work, and serving on the city’s arts and culture commission, before moving to the Bay Area last year.
Much of his professional and commercial photography work is documenting architecture for architecture firms and other businesses.
“I really love architecture,” he said.
Most of the commercial work is focused on documenting specific buildings, the aesthetics of particular projects, with little regard to the surrounding buildings or the urban context. Any people in the photos are incidental or perhaps just present to demonstrate the scale of the building.
But in the context of People vs. Structure, each isolated person becomes a focus point for the viewer’s attention. By themselves, some of these photos would seem like photos of buildings, but the series showcases the contrast between people and buildings. Domagala said that this is partly why he primarily chose photographs with only one or two people in them.
“If there’s a crowd of people, it’s kind of a mass of humanity, and you lose a lot of that focus,” he said. “You’re not focusing on one person because there’s a crowd there.”
But when there’s only one person in a photograph, the human eye is naturally drawn toward the figure, even if that figure seems to be overwhelmed next to some massive man-made structure.