James Fee at Craig Krull

Photography’s greatest Achilles heel may be that it’s too damn illustrative. How then to wrestle the poetry back into a medium which explains so much and leaves so little for interpretation?

I was reminded of this re-occuring  struggle when I saw, again, the emotive and evocational prints of James Fee at Craig Krull Gallery. Fee, who sadly passed away in 2006, managed to walk a delicate tightrope. He harnessed photography’s literalness but never at the expense of allusion. The impact of his entire oeuvre is sensationally gripping on a purely visual level. They don’t need back story. They arrive mature and complete into a world of visual conversation.

James Fee, Fly By, 2003, Toned Silver Gelatin Print, 14 x 21 inches

But part of their impact and resonance (and I felt this when I first encountered them in 1997) is that you knew, on a gut level, that there was more there. Not knowing, at least initially, didn’t make the aesthetic experience any less. But all too often, back story gets woven into a web of spin that usurps the visual material; the phenomenon of press release art. The art world is unfortunately littered with examples.

James Fee, Two Men, 2000/1956, Manipulated tone gelatin silver print

Craig Krull has curated a warm, affectionate and wholly intelligent exhibition of James Fee where story augments and strengthens yet never surpasses the fine work on display. The photos still evoke tension, hope, despair, sehnsucht and loss. They do this both on a personal and political level. The well crafted wall texts speak up to an viewer’s intelligence.

The photos, whether in color or often highly manipulated toned silver gelatin, tread the line between emotion and intellect; the heart and the head. In Fee’s capable hands, the illustrative nature of photography becomes the heart and the manipulation and obfuscation of image becomes the head. It’s a rather nice inversion of expectation. But the balance is always maintained. James Fee understood that it was a both/and paradigm.

James Fee at Craig Krull Gallery continues through September 1st, 2012

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles

also by Mario M. Muller

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