Artist Profile: Alan Strassman

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Featured image: Alan Strassman, Galatea Fine Art’s opening, Feb. 4, 2019. Photo: Frank Capezzera

The Feel of Abandonment-Alan Strassman captures Quiet Decay in Rural Mississippi

By: Frank Capezzera

Alan Strassman is fascinated by the visual evidence of abandonment and decay to be found in aging former industrial centers and small rural towns. His latest show of color photographs at Galatea Fine Art in Boston’s SoWa gallery district, entitled Remembering Emmett Till: Mississippi Delta-Back Roads and Small Towns, records scenes of what he calls his pilgrimage to that region in 2015 to capture the feel of rural streetscapes in the Mississippi Delta with their run-down buildings, cars, and economy. An introductory poster for the show, with historical photos, explains that the trip and resultant photographs, fourteen of which are in this show, were spurred by a personal reminiscence of writing a high school essay decades before about the notorious murder in 1955 in Mississippi of the young black man, Emmett Till, whose accused assailants were acquitted after a brief trial and who later confessed to the crime in an interview published in Look Magazine.

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Alan Strassman, Mississippi 314, photograph

Strassman’s photographs of Mississippi Delta towns offer carefully composed and framed images of the ordinary, quotidian experiences of dusty roads, tired structures and communities.  These are not ‘golden hour’ images. In the photographer’s own words, there is no attempt to express mood but rather to record what he finds as he applies his principles of documentation through his viewfinder. The photographs cumulatively document his discovery that these environs seem depleted and that the people appear forlorn or subdued. Strassman says his methods of picture making “apply the early 20th century aesthetics of ‘straight photography’ and ‘modernist photography’ to capture unmanipulated images of the real world in the 21st century”. Composition, balance, shape and color are the elements he works with. He says he is after what he calls “the monumentality of the ordinary” and intends to leave it up to the viewer to supply narratives, if any, for the work.

Eleven of the pieces, mostly measuring 22 x 30 inches, present strong images fully imbued with Strassman’s signature style of strong composition and balance.  The first of these, Mississippi 314, is of a rubble-strewn empty lot which fades back in the left half of the image; on the righthand side, a building wall in the foreground contains a flaked, painted sign on concrete featuring a painted icon of a red guitar and a rudimentary line rendering of a 1950’s vintage radio or television. The sign declares that inside (once?)  were “Musical Things”. Characteristically, the photographer presents interesting surfaces with the patina that only time or, perhaps, an artist’s burnishing brush can deliver.

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Alan Strassman, Mississippi 640, photograph, 22 x 30 in.

Another straight-on shot of the “Rollins Funeral Home”, catalogued as Mississippi 640, is half- occupied by a portion of the facade of a red brick and painted white commercial storefront with shrouded windows, over which the business is named in black letters. The lower half (foreground) of the image is of the paved street, complete with its detailed history of aggregate, cracks and discoloration.  Across this stage walks a small brown and white dog, the only life in the image. Alan says he felt lucky to find the dog wandering into his shot as he concentrated on the photograph’s compositional elements. There is a striking deep green painted building trim that is framed by the other elements of the building and, in turn, frames those elements.

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Alan Strassman, Mississippi 701, photograph, 22 x 30 in.

There are two pieces featuring churches. The first, of the Mt Heroden Baptist Church (Mississippi 569), appears to be a whitewashed block and cement pile with cathedral windows and doors and aging construction details. A couple in casual clothing and holding hands trudge along in front of the church, adding a quiet touch of humanity to the scene. The second church photograph, Mississippi 701, a small chapel with a domed steeple, is set way back in the image at the end of a long view down a dirt track where the lines of the path close on the chapel. The photograph is framed by dusty green brush and overcast sky.  A visitor from other parts might guess that the chapel is abandoned. No one is around. Only a visit on a Sunday or a Saturday will reveal whether the dirt road and the chapel come to life.

Other favorites, well worth traveling to see, are: Mississippi 137 in which a prison work gang in green stripped clown pants pick up trash from a lot next to an exposed side of a broken wall looking like a post-abstract expressionist painting; Mississippi 19, the most naturally poignant work, is of a man seated in a facade alcove of a white wood framed building, with subtle green glass windows, mounted on concrete steps. The man sits in an incongruously placed office chair in rolled up jeans and tee shirt, head in hand.

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Alan Strassman, Mississippi 756, photograph, 34 x 50 in.

Of the fourteen works in the show there are three large (34 x 50 inches), unglazed pieces on framed archival board. One of them, Mississippi 756 takes a long view of both sides of a commercial block as it recedes and disappears behind a distant curve. The intersection pavement in the foreground, occupying perhaps 60% of the surface of the photograph, is a highly resolved gray and brown pavement (one sees the pieces of aggregate), empty and quiet, perhaps very early in the morning. Even the traffic lights which are prominently suspended over the foreground are dark. The pavement recedes in perspective and lining each side of the street the buildings form a chevron of two-story storefronts. The scene would be unremarkable on some level and match the downbeat gestalt of the other works except for the polychromatic feast of colors presented by dozens of storefronts painted in pastels and bright hues. Each building is in happy contrast to the next as they shrink and pale into the distance. One feels that this street will come alive later that day but, according to the photographer, remains empty of life most of the day.

Alan Strassman’s keen eye for the patterns, shapes, surfaces and hues found in the “ordinary” in the Mississippi Delta are on full display for lovers of photography and image making in general in his show on exhibit at Galatea Fine Art in January.

Alan Strassman, color photographs Remembering Emmett Till: Mississippi Delta-Back Roads and Small Towns; January 2-27, 2019 at Galatea Fine Art, 460B Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA. www.galateafineart.com, (617) 542-1500; Gallery Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 12-5 pm and by appointment.

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