While it’s nothing new within the photographic realm, the use of handwritten signage as a conceptual prop has loaned itself to diverse projects that function as distinct signs of their own times.
Shot in a London alleyway as an introduction to filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back
, the pioneering music video “Subterranean Homesick Blues” shows the iconic singer slinging cue cards that mirror the song’s lyrics — until they fall slightly off-beat, complete with misspelled words such as “pawking metaws” and “sucksess.” The gimmick was later appropriated in videos for Belle and Sebastian, INXS, Steve Earle and “Weird Al” Yankovic, among others.
Also created in London, Turner Prize-winning British artist Gillian Wearing’s oft-referenced series “Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say” entailed her photographing and interviewing more than 500 strangers she encountered on the street. As its title may suggest, her “Signs” project invited participants to be captured holding signs emblazoned with personal sentiments — which run the gamut from defiantly proud (“Queer + Happy”) to sobering (“I Have Been Certified as Mildly Insane!”) to dire (“I Hate This World!”).
Other notable endeavors have paralleled Wearing’s format. The Portraits from Occupy Wall Street series Martin Schoeller shot for The New Yorker
in 2011, for example, featured a young female protestor’s sign declaring, “Prostitution: the Only Viable Option Available After Graduation to Afford My Student Loan Debt.” Audra Miller’s touching portraits of formerly homeless individuals for the Bay Area exhibition “Everyone Deserves a Home” showed a one subject with a sign reading, “Home Is a Haven From the Insanity of the Rest of This Incomprehensible World.” Local photographer Sarah Brooke Lyons’ well-received series “1005 Faces” even utilized such recognizable personalities as Tim Duncan (“Good, Better, Best, Never Let It Rest Until Your Good Is Better And Your Better Is Your Best!”).
Begun in 2016 and completed in late 2018, San Antonio photographer Ramin Samandari’s timely body of work “Huddled Masses: Who We Are” fits in this same vein but with a specific focus on ancestry and immigration. Born in Tehran, Iran, Samandari relocated to Texas at age 17 during the Iranian Revolution, settled in the Alamo City in 1988 and became a U.S. citizen in 1990. Hearkening to his complementary portrait projects “San Antonio Faces of Art” and “Faces of Artpace,” Samandari’s latest body of work took shape through open calls and First Friday photo sessions at his Magic Realism Studio in the Blue Star Arts Complex. While all 320 individuals Samandari photographed for the series were prompted to write a brief statement about their ancestry, some participants focused on broad, universal terms like “neighbor,” “human” and “earth walker.”
“This project is about the very idea of America ... a nation made up of people from everywhere, coming to her shores, some escaping famine, war, oppression and some simply looking for better opportunities,” Samandari explained in his artist’s statement,
Now part of the permanent collection of the Institute of Texan Cultures, “Huddled Masses: Who We Are” comes to light at a free public reception in conjunction with the monthlong celebration of Fotoseptiembre.
Free, opening reception 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7; $9-$12, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 6, 2020, UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, 801 E. César E. Chávez Blvd., (210) 458-2300, texancultures.com.
@ Institute of Texan Cultures
801 E César Chávez Blvd
When: Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays, 12-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 30
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