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Art Review

Greta Pratt at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Mis-Using History?

by Heidi Neubauer-Winterburn

Greta Pratt has said that her photographs of Americana are motivated by an interest in “understanding how Americans remember the past, in order to understand what is revealed by the events we choose to celebrate as history.” The celebratory aspect of history in her photographs is front and center -- often almost literally -- in her brightly colored prints of reenactments, pageants, processions, and "‘everyday" people.

Among the uniformly 30’ x 30’ photographs in Pratt's exhibition Using History, one can see an Abraham Lincoln impersonator standing against a log Winnebago, a Civil War re-enactor with a woman poised behind him wearing a pro-military Desert Storm t-shirt, and a mother with her children dressed as “Indians” buying white bread. When elements aren’t opposed within photographs, they are juxtaposed between photographs. In one instance, a photograph shows an elderly couple, with the backs of their heads dominating the foreground of the image, looking at a fallen body -- one isn’t sure if it’s the body of a sheriff, cowboy, or outlaw -- against a facsimile of an Old West town; the photograph beneath it is dominated by a back car window with a picture of Osama bin Laden and the words “Wanted Dead or Alive” in a font recalling wanted posters from Western films.

The words “ironic” and “wry” are often used when describing Pratt’s images, but looking at her photographs isn’t all that amusing. Are we actually supposed to find these images funny? Are we just supposed to congratulate ourselves for getting the contradictions and juxtapositions? What, exactly, is being celebrated in these images? Pratt’s work claims to be dealing with memory and using history, but it begs the question: How are we using history? And who in these often static, staged -looking photographs is constructing this version of events and vision of history?

In the post-9/11 moment, Pratt’s photographs do seem to reflect what she purports to be examining: “iconography [that] elicits a predictable response valuable [for] constructing identity, and invoking patriotism.” The identity being constructed through viewing Pratt’s images veers dangerously close to creating a counter-identity immersed in elitism, that regards the America enclosed within these images as evidence of politically incorrect throwbacks to another past, another American history. Pratt’s images, for all their seemingly objective elements -- the straight-on shots, the lack of obvious cropping -- reveal her oblique approach.

It is when Pratt’s photographs stop being easy knocks at how Americans use their pocketbooks, inviting the misuse of the word irony, or the fact that many, many children in American schools have worn feathers to depict “Indians,” that they begin speaking. One image of three boys and one girl playing in costumes with guns is especially interesting, as is a picture of an African American male being stopped in a car by a Civil War re-enactor. Those photographs, visually discontinuous with their blurring and sense of lifelike movement, particularly stand out. At these moments Pratt’s Using History begins to give viewers a sense of memory, history, and perhaps even trauma, marking out the possibilities for us as participants within history.

Pratt’s vision of America, and the history her photographs touch upon and avoid, is worth seeing, seeing through and discussing before the work itself is consigned to the archive of American history.

Greta Pratt: Using History is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Photography through October 14.