There’s a love affair going on right now in Fulcrum Gallery, Tacoma, captured on camera and visible to all online. No, nothing salacious – in fact, the perpetrator got a grant to do it. We’re talking about ‘Tacoma (253)," a solo photography exhibition by Tacoma artist Jesse Michener that just opened at Fulcrum Gallery. It’s Michener’s love for Tacoma – and it’s people – that’s displayed in 253 photos hung like washing lines around the gallery’s four front walls, and it’s the result of two years (and a Spark grant from the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation) of walking around our city, meeting our people and asking them what they love about life.
The result, oddly, is both poignant and somewhat frustrating. Poignant in that every image has a story: a North End gentleman with long white hair dressed up in tux and pirate gear with an arch smile, three laughing cooks at a pho restaurant, a family walking down the UWT steps, an extreme close-up of gravel and grass at an Old Town park. Most of the images are beautifully composed, whether taken with expensive camera or iPhone: intense focal points, interesting crops and framing, unexpected angles. Then there are the subjects, many recognizable to locals: a French bulldog waiting patiently near the Pantages, two tiny taste glasses clinking at the Brew253 festival (their owners fuzzily smiling behind), even a selfie of Michener herself, veiled opaquely behind billowing fabric as if not quite acknowledging herself. Every photo has some significance to Michener, who grew up here – in fact, the whole project was begun by the artist looking to reclaim visually a spot of Old Town grass where she was raped as a child.
So where are all those stories? That’s the frustrating bit. You can find them online ( tacoma253.com), though you have to dig into the archives, and not all the images are there. But they’re not in the gallery, where the tiny 5x5 prints swing from their lines like a nostalgic Instagram memory (if there is such a thing). Michener deliberately mounted no text, no stories, saying that each image would have its own story in the mind of the beholder. And that’s true, to some extent. But if there’s a diagonal crop close-up of an elbow, I want to know why it’s significant. Why that patch of grass? Why those women?
Ideally, an artist (and writer) as talented as Michener, who’s willing to devote so many hours to this love-song for our city, should be getting another grant, this time for a mobile app that, like STQRY or some such, can scan images, recognize them and spit up the story text, giving you the choice between thinking up your own interpretation and understanding the original one. Maybe in the future…