JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space and in the entry area. 22 of the works are vintage chromogenic contact prints, made in 1985, 1986, or 1987. Each is sized 8×10 inches (or reverse). The single additional work is a posthumous chromogenic print, made in 1986 and printed in 2010. It is sized 18×23 inches. No edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The esteemed title of “regional photographer” doesn’t exactly sound like a crown worth fighting for or even wearing. But if we look back across the long arc of the history of photography, so many of the masters and greats we now revere as second nature were artists who stubbornly stuck to one particular place, whether that location was a big city like New York or Paris, or a neighborhood, town, province, or state around the world that was likely only familiar to relative locals. Geographic persistence brings with it an inherent degree of patience, and it is often through this willingness to deliberately slow down and look at an otherwise overlooked place that its rhythms, charms, and eccentricities reveal themselves.
Bruce Wrighton spent his short photographic career (he died in 1988, at the age of 38) photographing in and around the moderately sized city of Binghamton, New York, where he lived. Located in the rough south/center of the state, not far from the Pennsylvania border, Binghamton was once a classic Rust Belt manufacturing city, and while efforts have been continually made to revitalize the region over the ensuing decades, especially with technology and defense-related companies, the city has arguably been on a slow decline ever since the 1950s. So on the spectrum of tantalizing places to spend your life photographing, Binghamton would be pretty far down from the top of the list, even if we limited the scope of choices to just those in the United States.
Armed with his 8×10 view camera, Wrighton’s project Saint George and the Dragon finds him lurking in the quiet recesses of the modest churches, bars, courthouses, hotels, and rec rooms of Binghamton, taking a closer look at the unlikely arrangements of decor found there. Wrighton consistently avoids the obvious – nowhere in this group is a central view of church architecture, a look down the long stretch of a shiny bar, or an external framing shot showing us a snappy vernacular storefront or an ornate entryway. In general, he has instead moved inside to search out the more forgettable zones, to the side alleys, dark corners, back rooms, storage areas, and bathroom foyers, and it is here that his thematic subject became clear.
In each of the pictures in the series, an image or icon is given a version of central prominence, and it is the placement of these variously revered pictures within their surroundings that makes for such a rich photographic journey. When Wrighton visits actual churches in and around Binghamton, he finds images of Jesus and other saints tucked in corners, hung on doors, flanked by flags, and set off by thick curtains. Down in the basement or in crowded storerooms, the juxtapositions are even more humble and mundane – a crucified Jesus hovers over a jukebox, statues and vestments are protected by plastic wrap near an ancient fan, various saints wait on shelves near sunny pink garden furniture, and framed imagery is stacked cheek by jowl with old vodka boxes and red barstools. It is in these rooms that the theater of religion waits to be staged, the revered objects sharing crowded space with everything else that needs to be stored somewhere.
With this religious context as a backdrop, Wrighton’s images of secular locations in Binghamton become that much more resonant, as the patterns of display seen in churches are echoed all over town, albeit with different kinds of imagery. A framed American flag has pride of place in a nondescript hallway in the Tioga courthouse in Oswego, while a folk art elder guards the bathrooms at another courthouse upstate. Painted murals set the stage in many locations, from the map of Italy in the Grozza Azzurra restaurant to the broad sky at the Clouds restaurant at the Brooms County Airport. Jesus himself makes an appearance near the pool table at the Salvation Army rec room and in various hotel rooms and living rooms (in one instance, surrounded by a dense thicket of house plants), while the Stag Hotel is filled with visual symbols, from the namesake mounted deer head to hanging parrots, swan planters, and framed portraits of Kennedy and friendly dogs.
While there is an understated brand of visual humor at work in images of neglected American flags and fluted columns stored with vacuum cleaners and old Christmas wreaths, Wrighton isn’t really poking fun at any of these places. He is simply showing us how these scenes are being constructed by their owners, with the nearby context of a table full of alcohol bottles, a standing ashtray, a TV, or a stone angel adding the complexity of real life. Both bar rooms and churches come off as devotional spaces of their own kind, the imagery used to similarly lure patrons in and communicate moods, however clumsy or kitchy the placement or design.
Between the crisp detail provided by the view camera and Wrighton’s own eye for color and patina, these images are consistently full of small wonders and discoveries. A formica table, a shiny orange banquette, a crucifix topped staff, a groovy red light, they all tell their own stories in these overlooked arrangements. Using the everyday spaces of Binghamton as a backdrop, Wrighton has shown us the universality of our decorative impulses, where imagery is made aspirational, regardless of its denomination.
Collector’s POV: The vintage prints in this show are priced between $5000 and $8500, while the posthumous print is $2500. Wrighton’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.