TORONTO — Wendy Snyder MacNeil is as much a documentarian as she is an artist.
Ample evidence of this is provided in The Light Inside: Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Photographs and Films, currently on view at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre, which recently acquired the artist’s entire archive. MacNeil studied under American photographer Minor White at MIT in the late 1960s and would go on to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She became known mainly for her portrait work, which is characterized by an austere clarity that complements, yet simultaneously contrasts with, the intimacy she clearly shares with her subjects.
Many of the black-and-white works featured in The Light Inside — which was curated by Don Snyder, a Ryerson University Image Arts faculty member who’s also the artist’s brother and longtime collaborator — blur the lines between art and documentation, and have a kind of vérité quality despite their highly stylized starkness. The faces of Boston Haymarket workers from the 1960s look like they could be ripped from news shots or social media feeds. The series Irish Tinkers, taken on a trip to Ireland in the late 1960s, explores family ties and community within the marginalized Travellers group. The subjects wear a grim determination on their faces, and the photos have an immediacy that comes through in the dirty flesh and sharp shards of light. “Untitled [Young Man, Old Woman, and children standing outside a tent]” (1968–69) features a roguishly handsome young man and an old woman who grips the hands of the children protectively, with a shy smile. The drama of the shot is served by MacNeil’s simple documentation; she doesn’t seem to exploit these people, but rather allows them to be themselves, to tell their own tales through their bodies and natural expressions. This style is repeated again and again throughout the show. MacNeil has a gift for allowing her subjects to both conceal and reveal, revealing bald truth and quiet grace at once.
Many of the portraits contained within the Special School for Special Children (1975) series are enjoying their first showing here. Taken from an unpublished photo essay of children with special needs at a Massachusetts school, the kids, like the ones depicted in Irish Tinkers, don’t smile, but there is grim focus. The most striking of these works features a boy who resembles an old man, with scant hair and pushed-in facial features that accentuate a mournful expression. There’s an intimacy at work here, evidence of the photographer’s ability to capture her subjects’ vulnerabilities. This characterizes much of MacNeil’s work, even when the subjects are immobile. Heads of Kings (1983–87), which depicts ancient stone sculptures, is compelling for its collision of austerity and intimacy. MacNeil said of the prints in 1991, “There’s something about the way their faces are battered, and yet they are kings and they are supposed to hold all the power. The power must be somewhere else.” One wishes there were more than just the two of these photographs on display; they bring to mind the interplay of power, time, and fragility so eloquently referenced in Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
The Biographies series (mainly done between 1972 and 1973, though one image dates from 1976) shows MacNeil’s powers of penetration at their keenest. A tall, thin, older woman named Marie Baratte is the subject of two photographs, wearing the same banal expression in each; the one on the bottom features the subject looking at a portrait of herself, with that exact portrait hanging directly above it. This clever placement asks us to consider the relationship between artist, model, and viewer, and our role as active participants in viewing and posing. Where are the lines between intimacy and invasion, observation and revelation? Is there such a thing as objective looking, or will we always see elements of ourselves (literally or figuratively) in the art we view? To reference Sontag, what parts of our lives are appropriated through photographs?
The most substantial section of the exhibition is Class Portrait, Graduate Students in Photograph, Rhode Island School of Design, made up of portraits of students and teachers at RISD, where MacNeil was on faculty from the 1967 through 2007 (and where she taught a number of students who would go on to enjoy celebrated photography careers, including Wendy Ewald, George Lange, and Justin Kimball). In the student section, MacNeil’s portraits hang alongside copies of ID cards. Some of the students are smiling and goofy in their ID shots while being stern and focused in their portraits, a juxtaposition that spurs the viewer to wonder which is the more authentic face. More pronounced contrasts can be found between the student portraits and those of professors facing budget shortfalls, positioned nearby; the students’ direct gazes offer challenge and defiance, while the teachers’ wide eyes, furrowed brows, and grave expressions point at a reality that’s filled with experience and wisdom, but also defeat. As with the Tinkers and Haymarket series, MacNeil asks us to consider her subjects both firmly within their life stations and beyond them.
This challenge frequently reveals itself in the eyes of her sitters — though sometimes the revelation is more brazen. A handwritten letter displayed in a glass case from one of MacNeil’s students, Eugenia Parry, asks the photographer about doing another sitting: “I look so severe and tired,” she writes. It’s a fascinating insight into how uncomfortable MacNeil’s unforgiving lens could make some. It’s also the reason MacNeil’s photography is so compelling — it raises questions about perception and human relationships, and frames them in clean, stark lines and deep, varying shades of grey. As Don Snyder told American Photo magazine, “The contrasts she brings into her images makes you visually toggle between them to think about this question or idea of identity.” The Light Within prompts the viewer to interrogate identity, as well as the ways in which photography can capture such a fluid thing.
The Light Inside: Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Photographs and Films continues at the Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould Street, Toronto) through April 10.