Backstage, Miss Light, Mesitas del Colegio. © Carl Bower

Last month, at the Critical Mass Top Fifty exhibition at Photographic Center Northwest I found myself transfixed by Carl Bower‘s Backstage, Miss Light, Mesitas del Colegio.

I presumed it was shot on a nocturnal, hedonist jaunt to which photographers (Antoine D’Agata, David Alan Harvey, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Clayton Cubbitt) often turn.

Or possibly an indifferent Larry Finkesque look at glamour?

The image was noir enough that I placed it simultaneously in different eras. It echoed Erwitt but without the sentimentality.

For me, it was the stand-out print of the exhibition and I told Carl as much. With a touch of class I insisted on qualifying my flattery, “I don’t bullshit people.”

BEYOND THE SURFACE

When I got home unable to shake the threatening image nor the fool of a comment I delivered its creator I checked out Bower’s Critical Mass portfolio.

Bower’s sumptuous, dangerous image of surface and tease was – is – to my surprise part of an important look at collective escapism, denial and dreams.

I have talked about Colombian beauty pageants before, but in the context of prison contests! I hadn’t appreciated at that time of writing that the prison pageant merely reflected the appetite for swimsuits and tiaras in wider Colombian society. Carl’s artist statement is remarkable:

The pageants of Colombia are a petri-dish for examining the nature of beauty and how we cope with adversity. Set against a backdrop of poverty, crime and the hemisphere’s longest running civil war, nowhere are the contests more ubiquitous and revered … There is no ambiguity or pretense that anything else matters. Icons of a rigidly defined ideal, the contestants highlight the conflated relationship between beauty and attraction. … While the contests often provoke outrage and ridicule elsewhere, in the Colombian context the issue is more complicated. The pageants’ popularity ebbs and flows with the level of violence in the country. Millions follow the contests in a vicarious relationship with the queens, clinging to the Cinderella fantasy of magically transcending poverty. The contests project an image of normalcy, a refusal to be defined by the violence or to live as if besieged. They are a form of denial and defiance, an escape, wholly frivolous and possibly essential.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that Bower’s work is void of any sense of judgement. Every crowd is matched with a lonely figure. Every smile parried by a sideways glance. Every opportunity for scorn mollified by a capture of genuine emotion. This balance is admirable and may stem from Bower’s journalist background.

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