One Fine Show: ‘In the Right Place’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

There's a unity in the work of Barbara Crane, Melissa Shook and Carol Taback.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A collage of black and white photo strips
Carol Taback, ‘George, 1979-1980, Sheet (each strip): 8 × 1 9/16 inches (20.3 × 3.9 cm), Overall: 8 x 12 3/4 inches (20.3 x 32.4 cm), Gelatin silver prints, 8 photo booth strips. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Do you ever have those days when you spend hours staring at your own image while wearing very little clothing, joyfully losing your mind in a New York City apartment? Maybe you’re in the middle doing that right now, and I wouldn’t judge you for it. It’s that time of year, there aren’t any new movies to see. Moreover, such activities describe a significant body of work by the brilliant 1970s photographer Melissa Shook. If it was good enough for her, it’s good enough for you. Especially in early February.

Shook’s Daily Self Portraits (1972–73) form one-third of a just-opened show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “In the Right Place: Photographs by Barbara Crane, Melissa Shook, and Carol Taback.” Shook’s snaps pair well with Crane’s People of the North Portal (1970–71) and Taback’s Photo-Booth Strips (1978–80). The museum’s other recently opened show “Transformations: American Photographs from the 1970s” offers bigger names, but there’s a unity in the work of the three women that offers a tighter thesis, showing people and subjects not often photographed with enough enthusiasm to demonstrate that America’s decline doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.

People of the North Portal captures people at the left front door of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and it’s hard to believe some of these people didn’t dress for the occasion. The girl with a furry fringe jacket enters as a man in two-toned jeans exits. The glasses are thick and the bottoms are belled. It’s surprising that all these people are leaving the same place. Some old folks look dour, and others elated. Some families are harried, but the large man and his three strapping sons look like they’re posing at Macy’s. Each photograph is like a very different short story, despite sharing the same basic composition.

SEE ALSO: Review: The Intense Stillness of Celia Paul’s ‘Life Painting’

Crane has said the series is about “specific people interactions and formal spatial relationships” but Taback’s Photo-Booth Strips are by far the most formally compelling of the three, probably owing to her background as a painter and fashion illustrator. The series began as an experiment in 1977, and she first staged them at a Philadelphia Woolworths but installed a booth in her studio once she discovered her own penchant for nudity. When alive, she said the strips could be arranged in any order, so Female with Towel feels like a time-bending striptease. In contrast, Two Males feels like an appropriate title because without a narrative are they really anything but that identity and those actions? George is great, too, because he just wants the camera to capture a sweater with his name on it. His face appears in exactly one photo.

And I didn’t mean to be facetious about Shook, who clearly sought to expand the bounds of her identity as much as possible in each of these self-portraits, without using anything like makeup. Her face and body change greatly depending on light and setting. Other offerings in this series include photos of her children. Like many people in the 1970s, she had an expansive and generous vision of what constitutes the self.

“In the Right Place: Photographs by Barbara Crane, Melissa Shook, and Carol Taback” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 7.

One Fine Show: ‘In the Right Place’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art