Review from Uptown Magazine
I’m not surprised that the soft-spoken, loudly dressed photographer Karen Asher enthusiastically claims to be “a big old people-lover.” Seriously, who wouldn’t fall in love with Asher’s sweet oldster, The Ice Cream Man?!
Dentures gleaming, he holds a melting cone aloft against a vivid cerulean sky. Shooting on medium format film (medium format film is much larger than standard 35 mm film, 6 cm by 6 cm being one of the more common sizes) enables Asher to capture a wealth of details.
It is these details – the delicate crinkles of the ice cream man’s neck, for example – that build the narrative interest of the shot. In this photograph, the sky is echoed in the man’s blue shirt and the aquamarine rubber of an oxygen tube affixed below his nostrils. It evokes a note of despair to be confronted with mortality and makes one more determined to drink in his glee.
Speaking to Asher about Ice Cream Man and other photos in her first public exhibition, I wondered if I should reassess my characterization of her as quiet. When talking about her photographs, she unleashes an excited torrent of words. Unsurprisingly, there is a story behind each of the 15 photographs in her Platform Gallery exhibition No Cause for Concern, which continues until Feb. 27.
Although her goal is to capture an authentic image, Asher is no naïf when it comes to her relationship to her subjects and the privilege her camera affords her: As she was photographing one day, a man approached her and told her, “I’m the marathon winner.”
“Maybe he thought I was with a newspaper or TV crew – my camera looks fancy,” Asher explains apologetically.
In the resulting photograph, several policemen can be seen clustered in the background behind the man, suggesting a sinister reason for the marathon winner’s bloodshot eyes, intense stare and sweat-beaded skin. This scene, familiar from the front pages of local papers, is infused with an uneasy drama by Asher’s compositional choices.
Fascinated as she is with people of all sorts (not just the elderly), Asher achieves in portrait photography what few do – unsettling and arresting images that avoid both the studied awkwardness and ho-hum predictability of magazine photography, and the icky exploitativeness of some contemporary portraits. In fact, Asher displays a marked aversion to the “cheap shot,” or what a friend of mine described as a ‘Vice-tastic’ aesthetic.
A series of photos of the artist’s mother as she recovers from triple-bypass surgery are particularly frank and unusual. Asher’s humour provides a counterpoint to the potential for maudlin sentimentality when documenting a sick parent. In a drained, modern-day depiction of an ecstatic vision, Asher’s Jewish mother slumps indifferently beneath an ascendant Christian saint mounted on the hospital chapel’s wall.
As unlikely as it may seem, Asher uses her camera, usually a symbol of power and domination, to create trusting relationships with strangers, family, friends and everyone else. The result is a body of work that shows the photographer to be as vulnerable as her subjects.