Silver Eye Center for Photography’s Biennial Exhibition Returns with Radial Survey Vol III

A circle has no end and no beginning, but it does have a center. Rather than treat Pittsburgh as the in-between stopover between New York and Chicago, in Silver Eye Center for Photography’s Radial Survey Vol III, Pittsburgh is the center of a 300-mile radius for a one-of-a-kind conversation about some of the freshest contemporary photography. The biennial exhibition covers only the 300-mile radius around Pittsburgh, stretching south to the D.C. metropolitan area, north to upstate New York, west to Ohio, and east to Baltimore. The show is biennial, which Silver Eye deputy director Jillian Daniels helpfully gave a mnemonic trick for: “Whichever year the Carnegie International isn’t happening, that’s when Radial Survey happens.” 

Stepping Away from Screens

Radial Survey Vol III features Akea Brionne, Larry W. Cook, Alanna Fields, Eduardo Rivera, Shane Rocheleau, Marissa Long, and Lisa Toboz. The lineup was selected by the artists from the 2021 iteration of the show, and Silver Eye Director Leo Hsu stated that the theme that emerged from all of the featured works to make the unofficial title of the show was Presence. One of the challenges of exhibiting photography is that with there’s not as much of a need to look at a photographic image in person. For each Radial Survey, Hsu and curator Helen Trompeteler put together a fundraiser gala and a daylong symposium with all of the featured artists, creating a sense of community and need to gather to experience the work in person. 

Part of what makes Silver Eye’s exhibitions so effective for those who might overlook photographic work is the lack of glass over the photographs. The absence of glare allows for more natural light upon viewing and a closer, more intimate connection with each work. The images feel more visceral when the color and texture of the ink are right in front of your eyes. Silver Eye also employs an expert team of installers. Both Alanna Fields (Washington, D.C.) and Akea Brionne (Baltimore, M.D.) work across physical mediums in their photography that add a new sense of texture — Brionne with textiles and Fields with wax. In Fields’ work, she uses archival materials of Black queer people from history and adds layers of wax to meditate on questions about visibility and invisibility. 

Human-less Activity

In Brionne’s Radial Survey images, she photographed rural spaces with no people. This shares the wall with one of her large-scale textile pieces; even in her photography, you feel the same sense of craftsmanship and composition. The black-and-white images of horses, sand, and grass feel alive when you look at them, despite their grey color. On the facing wall, Lisa Toboz (Pittsburgh, PA) used a now-defunct Polaroid model to make images inspired by Victorian spirit photography to create ghostlike outlines in the prints and reflect on her experience surviving cancer and connect to her family’s past. 

The presence or absence of human activity in the photos is a through-line of Radial Survey. One of the most affecting works in Eduardo Rivera’s (Rochester, N.Y.) lineup is Monsoon (2016), a stark, black image of a bolt of lightning. The majority of Rivera’s other work is archival photographs of his family, and in a series of images of people, Monsoon is the only one that lacks any human presence in it. The lightning feels threadlike, even soft, under Rivera’s lens. There’s something oddly calm about the image, despite the brutality of nature on display in it. It’s paired with Joanna’s Birthday (2018), a soft amber image whose only light comes from birthday candles. 

Like Rivera, Marissa Long (Arlington, VA) documents ritual. While Rivera’s photographs document real rituals, Long makes them up with whimsical and unsettling imagery, like two chalices tied together with a ribbon. Long’s images speak to the need for ceremony and the ways we might pervert our natural desires to fit inside of ceremony. 

An Intervention

Larry W. Cook (Washington, D.C.) and Shane Rocheleau (Richmond, VA) share the smaller room towards the back of the gallery space. Cook uses digital manipulation to put whole landscapes inside of figures as his way of pushing back against mass incarceration’s violence on the body. For Cook, the medium of photography becomes an intervention, a way to interject on perception.

Rocheleau’s series Lakeside documents the people of his neighborhood in Richmond, VA, and investigates how its people related to their community in the wake of the 2016 election, including a striking portrait of “Butch,” a gun-toting drag queen with piercing blue eyes. Both Cook and Rocheleau use their practices to provoke thought and make viewers sit with nuance. This is also the part of the gallery space with a bench inside. It was a deft curatorial decision to place those two series with a place to sit and reflect on their complexity. 

Not Just Photography

Throughout the symposium, the featured artists referred to themselves as “image-makers,” a term I had never considered before to describe photographers. However, it’s a useful one to distinguish between commercial or documentary photography and photography as an art form. Radial Survey Vol III is a project unique to the city of Pittsburgh, and Silver Eye is a unique part of Pittsburgh’s history. From its original location on East Carson Street as part of the DIY scene of the South Side to this space on Penn Avenue in the growing arts district in Garfield, Radial Survey Vol III shows that Silver Eye is advancing the conversation about photography with a new generation of image-makers. We’re all lucky to be in its presence. 

Radial Survey is open through February 3rd at Silver Eye Center for Photography. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturdays.

Disclaimer: Lisa Toboz, a featured photographer in Radial Survey Vol III, is an editor at Table. 

Story by Emma Riva / Photography by Lisa Tobaz

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