Review: Karen Hoyt at Finch Gallery

Photographer Karen Hoyt‘s exhibition “Presidents of the United States” at Finch Gallery succeeds on a dual level, as the photographs testify about the subjects’ character as much as they do about Hoyt’s candid exploration of Otherness. Hoyt, a White woman who has made the nearly exclusive African American neighborhood of Englewood her home for a while, is familiar on a personal basis with many of the photographed subjects. While it would be easy to interpret (or rather–misinterpret) a White photographer’s insistence on photographing African Americans as racial voyeurism if not flat out exoticism, Hoyt’s images, in fact, defy that. For starters, as a woman Hoyt would be well aware of the implications of being objectified by the status quo. But more importantly, following the traditions of Richard Avedon and Thomas Ruff , Hoyt allows her portraits to do the talking. Leaving her subjects sans directions, she allows each one to choose the angle they believe best represents them. The absence in the gallery exhibition of names, dates or location eliminates any potentially distracting narrative. Instead, viewers are encouraged to study the nuanced poses, gestures and facial expressions of the subjects, as they softly reveal themselves. A wrinkled hand, a modest grin, a thin gold chain bearing a family photograph for a pendant, among others, become slowly expanding cracks as they permit access to the subjects’ lives.

But Hoyt’s work does not exist in the formerly (and erroneously) accepted axiom that a photograph is an objective document revealing the truth about the subject matter. In fact, the photographs arguably reveal more about Hoyt than they do about her subjects. Naming the series “Presidents of the United States” reflects Hoyt’s motivation to empower her subjects, as well as diffuses the exclusive singularity reserved for the commander-in-chief. The pluralization of the most difficult job on the land speaks of generosity. For Hoyt, it is those subjected to the harshest social categorizations who are worthy of a closer look, which she successfully provides. Avoiding saccharine sentimentality in favor of earnest–even if vulnerable–portrayal, Hoyt’s exhibition is a fine and subtle nod to the everyday person, as well as a page torn out of her mental diary. It is a bold move on her part, as there will always be someone expressing suspicions about the power dynamic engendered by a White woman “framing” African Americans with her lens, especially one in which she openly shares the experience of creating the image (Hoyt is incredibly open and approachable in person, I must add.) But to those who will choose to give Hoyt the benefit of the doubt, a dedicated contemplation of her work will reveal the reverence–and love–with which her portraits are imbued.

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