By Jonathan Goodman


Steven Poster's black-and-white photographs continue the strong tradition of documentary photography in America, in which the cultural and social mores of a complex democracy receive extraordinary attention-as in, for example, the book America by Robert Frank. Poster, who acknowledges the tutelary presence of an artist like Frank, nonetheless is very much his own person-he finds, like all outstanding photographic artists, that particular moment when the truth of the camera and the imagination of the person behind it are welded into the gathered force of a single image, whose intimations and consequences ring loud and clear as both art and document. Poster finds his freedom within the tradition of black-and-white shooting in America, eschewing the overly intellectual for images of considerable intuitive force, in which a distinguished formalism is used to communicate both humanity and beauty. At a time when art has become highly conceptualized, Poster finds rendering the human condition, in all its glory and alienation, an imperative task. As a result, he demonstrates an unusual empathy for the vulnerabilities of people, their foibles and melancholic tendencies are recorded with a sympathetic eye.


The images themselves range over decades and geographies; Poster works with a large spirit, internalizing the visual content of America and transforming what he sees into memorable allegories.  The photo Horse and Barn, from 1972, demonstrates his penchant for shooting a balanced composition-in this image, a horse stands next to a barn whose roof slopes down toward the animal; the picture is divided in half, between the dark ground and fence in front of the barn and the grayish-white sky behind it. Another remarkable work comes from a 1989 photo taken of a boat in Lepae, Spain, at the very end of daylight; in which half of the white hull is caught by the diminishing light, the other draped in shadow and darkness, which extends throughout the rest of the picture, except for a few low-lying cumulus clouds. Poster's ability to capture the moment is seen again and again in his exquisitely objective pictures-there is a marvelous image, a kind of metaimage of the need to photograph, in his shot of people photographing the Winged Victory in the Louvre in 1997. In the center of the crowd are two young women who are simply looking at the stature; their gravitas underscores an attitude toward art, an unspoken appreciation that Poster clearly shares. By making visible their positive reception, Poster reveals an understanding of our need to make contact with the revelatory object, the sculpture that challenges our understanding by transcending it.


Other remarkable images come to mind: the circular sofa and large windows seen in a 1974 picture of the Desoto Hotel in Galena, Illinois, a striking study of lights and darks animating the interior room looking out into the street; the humor of a large gathering of plastic ducks wearing sunglasses in Pomona, California (2001), in which one duck looks, with insouciance, directly back at the camera; a naked Devil Woman wearing only a cape in Coney Island (1994), her horns, breasts, and thighs visible before a stretch of steel fence. In Metroman (1999), Poster takes a picture of a disheveled, disgruntled elderly man in a Paris subway car, whose disapproval of being captured on film is registered in his facial expression. The image not only communicates, because of its humor, the idiosyncrasies of a particular human personality, it also demonstrates the power of the camera to catch the vulnerability we all share on being recorded. It consequently becomes clear that Poster's esthetic intelligence is devoted not only to documenting our lives but also to asking why such awareness seems necessary; the image lives on inevitably as proof of a curiosity concerning the lives of people we do not necessarily know, but whom we certainly understand by our identification with their circumstances. Poster comprehends this situation extremely well, and he makes excellent art from it.


Again and again, Poster reflects on the odd mixture of vulgarity, beauty, and freedom of American culture, its icons spelling out a visual and moral complexity that refuses to categorize or judge. Poster is a singular artist whose black-and-white oeuvre delivers much more than the sum of its parts, captivating us with an imagination that is both definitive and exploratory, improvised and sharply defined. Trained and active as a cinematographer, he has a sure grasp of the implicit narrative in the still image, whose resonance indicates a sympathy with whatever it is that comes his way. In a sense, he is demonstrating his capacity not only for noting the moment, but also for intimating the narrative consequences of that moment, so that the viewer finds himself in thrall both to an instant and a story. This lends his images a seriousness and weight that is all the more unusual for its being consistently communicated to Poster's audience, who regularly joins him in his exploration of life.