A Way of Being loses relevance in crammed panopticon

by Beacon Staff • February 25, 2009

The Panopticon Gallery contradicts the work it displays. It forces the visitor to question whether works stand on their own or if the place has an influence on the viewer's perception. iA Way of Being/i, by photographer Jon Edwards, is a collection of black and white images of a coastal Maine community's way of life. The exhibit is currently at the Panopticon-and it couldn't be at better place to raise this question.

The Kenmore Square gallery and takes up only a small corridor. Each photograph is taken in the point of view of a voyeur's-as someone who has stumbled into this familiar yet forgotten way of life. Edwards not only snaps but traps a seemingly lost lifestyle with his camera-depicting people totally removed from modern society. In Edwards photograph "Spring Laundry," we see a child, standing before sheets billowing in the wind on a clothesline. Then something strange and rather unpleasant happens-just as one imagines standing in the tall grass on a warm spring day, the smell of flowers trickles past their nose, and becomes increasingly dense until it is actually sickening. This muddy scent wafts from a women's fragrance store that is off of the corridor, where shoppers casually pass by the gallery to sniff the too-sweet nectar. The beautiful picture taken by Edwards becomes far more removed from the viewer than intended, and the exhibit loses its transportive relevance.

One of the more remarkable snapshots in the collection is "Communication," where we see a man who is connecting two callers through an operating system as he leans back on his chair; effortlessly applying the skills he's practiced for what seems like a lifetime judging by the age on his face. This frame hangs at the end of the gallery, where there is no escaping the sounds of people chatting, cell phones ringing and plates clacking from the restaurant at the other end of the hall.

Other images exhibit ghostly shadows or hard-to-read expressions of people participating in fishing, farming and cooking over a wood-burning stove. The images seem as though they were taken 50 or 60 years ago and, were it not for their awkward setting in the Panopticon, give off a warm and pained sense of nostalgia. A quick glance at the wall labels assures us they were taken only five and six years ago.

And just as the viewer can feel themselves being carried off into one of Edward's rowboats, and just as they imagine their hair blowing in the wind along with the bed sheets, the loud rumbling and shaky vibrations of the T passing underneath the hall jolts him or her back to reality. The Panopticon gallery does not for a second let you become part of pastoral life. It instead snatches most of your senses and forces you back to the city step-the polar opposite of the life Jon Edwards so perfectly captures.