Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Gallery Artist Larry Towell's "Dwellings" Review In The Toronto Star

If these walls could talk . . .
Larry Towell documents disaster by leaving people out of the frame

By Murray Whyte

Larry Towell has made a prominent career wringing beauty from despair, though that’s only part of his mission. In fact, it’s very nearly a byproduct, the happenstance result of his resolute commitment to human rights causes the world over.

The results, generally speaking, are not what one would typically expect of so-called “hot zone” photography, where thousands of pictures of the same events tend to have a wearying sameness. Towell photographs in weeks and months, not minutes or hours. He spends time in people’s homes, working slowly not to capture tragic flashpoints, but the churn of daily life that happens between them. Conflict photography chronicles ruptures in humanity; Towell works to unearth humanity from that sudden, consuming despair. The results are intimate, not remote, often disarmingly personal in the swirl of faceless disasters.

Nowhere is that more clear than in Dwellings, the show of Towell’s photographs that opened at the Stephen Bulger Gallery this week. As the title suggests, it reveals a vital part of Towell’s M.O. In the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank — denounced by the United Nations in 2002 as “horrific beyond belief” — Towell spent weeks sleeping on concrete floors with refugee families. For a project about the persistence of AIDS in poor black South African populations, he stayed in the ramshackle townships.

Towell is likely the most celebrated Canadian documentary photographer ever, as his membership in the prestigious Magnum Agency will indicate. (He was also the winner of the inaugural 30,000 euro Henri Cartier Bresson prize in 2003, named for one of the agency’s founders, and a seminal war photographer himself.)

The pictures in Dwellings are culled from several projects and places around the world, but what unifies them is a pervading absence. Unlike the vast majority of Towell’s pictures, they’re notably unpeopled, and rendered ghostly ambiguous by it. Some have a silently spellbinding materiality: A blackened concrete wall, shot close up and pock-marked by bullets, is a study in contrast — the smooth dark of the wall, the powdery silt-grey of the pocks — and geometry, as the bullet holes arrange themselves in an imperfect grid around an equally flawed square.

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