quot;Matterquot; trumps quot;Mindquot; in Vanderwarker#039;s imperfect Pantheon exhibit

by Beacon Staff • April 29, 2009

The great thing about a free exhibit is that even if half of it is less-than-stunning, it still ends up being worth the trip. iVanderwarker's Pantheon: Minds and Matter in Boston/i, on display until May 9 at the Boston Athenaeum, is a mixture of gorgeous scene shots and boring portraits of people responsible for improving Boston.

As a whole, however, the exhibit ends up being worth the walk across Boston Common.

Photographer Peter Vanderwarker clearly loves two things: architecture and Boston. His exhibit is an attempt to glorify the city-its buildings, its history, and the influential people in it.

Some of that glory is deserved, but the rest seems like overkill, especially the portraits ranging from lawyers to teachers to writers. In short, he could have dispensed with the minds and focused more on the matter.

The people he photographs have no solid connection to each other, aside from a vague description on the website that they are "cultural heroes" involved in promoting various kinds of change in Boston.

Vanderwarker gets credit for trying to pick a diverse group of people, but unfortunately, they don't have enough in common to feel like a cohesive exhibit.

Fortunately, the pictures without people-the "matter" of the exhibit--are skillfully taken.

The first photos in the exhibit are of the John Hancock Tower, taken from across the river at the MIT boathouse at different times of day. The tower divides the frame, appearing never-ending and entirely solitary.

The interest isn't so much the building as what the sky does around it. Vanderwarker captures the moments where the clouds and the light, reflecting off the tower, make the building appear like a mirage.

His other photos display a talent for capturing when the light best enhances the subject of the picture.

For instance, the Grand Staircase at the Boston Public Library, because of the light streaming in from the sunset, looks even more impressive than it does in person, as does a panorama of the bustling farmer's market at Haymarket in 1989, or a night Red Sox game that captures Fenway Park framed against a reddish-purple sky.

Vanderwarker's most impressive photo, though, is of the Zakim Bridge in the evening when its lit up and colorful, and it may very well be worth visiting the exhibit all by itself.

Yellow and red streaks winding through the photo from the cars are complemented by the sunset, while the contrasting cool blues of the bridge and water match the night sky. It is a breathtaking harmony from a vantage point that manages to capture an expansive city horizon during the time of day when the city looks its best.

Unlike other exhibits, the placards by the scene photos aren't distracting, mostly because Vanderwarker keeps them brief and doesn't try to sum up everything related to the picture. He gives either a short anecdote on the experience of taking the photo, a tidbit about the history or a concise sentence on his artistic thought behind the shot.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the placards by the portraits, which are the subjects' own statements about what they do and why they feel it is important.

Their quotes range from mildly interesting to dull and pretentious. And, after reading them, viewers still won't really get why the portraits are in the exhibit.

The main problem is that in most of the shots of the people, they aren't doing anything interesting. They are just smiling at the camera-which is pleasant, but hardly groundbreaking.

For instance, an architect stands next to the John Hancock Tower. The relationship is painfully clear and unimaginative. And, quite frankly, half the people in Boston have pictures of themselves standing in front of that landmark. Vanderwarker's scene shots indicate that he has a creative streak-it's a shame he didn't use it more in the portraits.

That said, there are a couple of thought-provoking photos hidden beneath the rubble of generic ones. One, a picture of world champion triathlete Karen Smyers biking, is interesting because she remains in focus while her woodland surroundings are a blur of greens and browns.

But the sunset-gold tinted benches of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway would definitely have been more exciting without attorney Robert Tuchmann sitting there.

Presumably, it has something to do with his involvement in community service, but that still remains a better topic for a profile piece, not a portrait.

An article can describe his work so the audience can actually understand what he does and why it matters. A picture and a brief blurb tell them little beyond the fact that he's notable.

With photos from a more than 20-year time span, iMinds and Matter/i is part history, part human interest, and part architectural wonder. Clearly catering to a local audience, Vanderwarker attempts to mesh the people of the city with its scenic icons. Though he doesn't quite manage bring both aspects to life, his exhibit is still worth a half an hour after a relaxing day on Boston Common.