Bleaching away the rules

By Steven Schnarr

One photographer from Columbia tried something new-he didn’t shoot his own photography. Instead, he ordered prints online and manipulated the printed image to get the desired effects.

The artwork of Columbia photographer Curtis Mann is featured at the exhibit “Are We There Yet?” The curator, Columbia photography professor Dawoud Bey, has gathered lens work as a commentary on the way people currently see the world. Five out of nine artists featured at the exhibit are Bey’s former students, with work also done by artists from Israel, Vietnam and Colombia. The show has been running at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., since July 20, and will have a public closing party on Sept. 28 with a number of the collaborators present.

Allison Peters Quinn, director of exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, said the exhibition explores the notion of travel, position and economic and social statuses of people around the world.

Photography today shows lots of the same style of work, but these photographs don’t do any of that-they take it to a whole new level, she said. One example is Mann’s work and his new technique of manipulating the physical photographs, Quinn said.

Mann, a Columbia student nearing graduation with a master’s in fine arts, said his background in engineering helped him bring something different to photography. Physically manipulating and interacting with materials while engineering is the same mindset Mann used with his photography, he said. This led him to use a unique process with the photographs he put in the show.

Mann finds photographs online, from places like or eBay, then orders a number of larger prints from stores like Target.

“I like it because it’s normal, it’s not a special print,” he said. “It’s not high-end. It’s kind of cheap. It’s the way my mom would order a print. I enjoy that.”

Mann said he doesn’t like to use photojournalistic images, though the photographs he used were taken in countries he has never visited. Rather, he used photos from tourists or residents of the countries casually taking pictures, he said.

After Mann receives the prints, he experiments by painting a clear acrylic varnish over parts of the photos he wants to keep intact, then dips the photo into bleach, which erases the unpainted parts of the photo. Each time, he may choose to preserve a different part of the photograph.

“That’s the fun part for me, being curious about the images and seeing possibilities of what else they could become,” Mann said. “At the same time, they have that erased or apocalyptic look about them.”

At first, Mann was not sure if his work had any value but was encouraged by Bey to pursue this new type of work.

“I had a bunch of stuff on the wall, and [Bey] came up to me and said [pointing at his artwork], ‘Put all of this and this under your bed. Figure this out right now.'” Quinn said Bey is a huge supporter of the arts community based on the South Side.

Another artist in the show, who hails from Colombia, Adrianna Rios, said what she thought was interesting about the show was that Bey wrote about it from an American perspective, yet invited people from all over the world to be in the show. Her own piece, a 12-minute video titled “There Is No Time/No Hay Tiempo,” used looped images of people waiting or loitering around. One clip she mentioned is a shot a few seconds long of two men who look like peasants sitting against a wall, with a man dressed in fatigues and carrying a rifle walking in front of them.

“[That piece is] full of cultural things, but not explicit at all,” she said. “Depending on where you are from you interpret the situation a different way.” She said the shot, full of cultural elements, is so short that it leaves a lot up for interpretation.

“This military guy could be from the army or could be guerilla or could be anything,” she said.

Another example Rios used to explain cultural interpretation is a clip from her piece where a group of Latino men are loitering outside a bakery. She said it is prohibited to loiter in these areas, but it’s just normal for Latinos to loiter anywhere. One point of view could see them as causing trouble, or selling drugs, but another point of view would see the whole situation as normal.

Rios said this may be the last time she exhibits her own work because she feels more comfortable expressing her ideas by collecting and exhibiting other people’s work. She now works as a curator in Colombia.