PHILADELPHIA — There is a photography exhibition at Vox Populi infused with the scent of flowers and forests. The photographs, by Jay Muhlin, chronicle the life of, in the artist’s own words, “a young girl who he is helping raise.” The girl in question displays a whole range of childlike behaviors — playing in a garden, in various costumes, mugging for the camera.
The combination of photography with scent is a curious, if slightly unsettling one. Photography is still held to have some measure of honesty, or a documentary nature to the images it captures (or, more accurately, creates); yet smell is less objective, since it conjures up memories and associations in immediate, primal, and affective ways. I wondered, as I looked at these girlhood snapshots — of her grimacing for the camera in plastic vampire teeth, or lying facedown in a bank of snow — whether my perception was being manipulated by that sweet smell, which primes us to feel happy and at peace.
Muhlin seems to acknowledge and even revel in the unease photography can produce: one of the first photographs on display depicts a cat (a recurring compatriot of the girl) sitting on top of a stack of tomes whose titles — including The Anxiety of Photography; Memories, Dreams, Reflections; Documentary Storytelling — allude to the ambiguity of the rest of the exhibition, titled Kid. An adjacent photograph, which depicts this child laying down a line of carrots away from a bush, even reads like an invitation — as in, follow the rabbit hole into this show, and into this heightened, floral-scented reality.
The key work in Kid, however, is not a photograph, but a child-size chair (topped with a copy of the show’s photobook) placed near the center of the space on a pedestal. The associations of putting an object on a pedestal, and their application here, could not be clearer: with this gesture, Muhlin indicates that childhood itself is being venerated and sanctified. He is not documenting childhood, but expressing its value, while lamenting its brevity.
In a striking photograph, the child is posed like a model against a white backdrop, fingers dripping with jeweled rings, wearing an almost solemn and wistful expression, as if she, too, sees her own uncertain, grown-up future. Or perhaps she is looking back on her childhood, each image on the walls a bittersweet memory of what was, punctuated by the scent of flowers.
Jay Muhlin: Kid continues at Vox Populi (319 N 11th St, Philadelphia) through January 21.