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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Postcards from Milwaukee at Milwaukee Art Museum

Photo exhibit focuses on familiar local scenes

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Many things are devastatingly familiar about the photographs in “Postcards from America: Milwaukee,” on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum. A strip of bacon skewered along with an asparagus spear, olive and other fixings, cantilevered over the top of a tall Bloody Mary; a bus stop glistening with water droplets on a cool gray morning; buttercream painted piers supporting a freeway overpass. The sources are Comet Cafe, the intersection of Humboldt and North avenues, and the underpinnings of the Marquette Interchange, respectively. In the eyes of the photographers on this project, they are supporting characters that help describe this peculiar place called Milwaukee.

Hailing from various parts of America and abroad, 11 photographers visited between August 2013 and April 2014. They work with Magnum Photos, a cooperative founded in 1947 in which photographers working internationally capture historic events as well as the mild dramas of daily life. The curious thing about the collected images in the exhibition is the vantage point of the outsider, drawing out images that, to native eyes, are intimately familiar and functional.

This is the paradox of the exhibition. Having lived on the East Side for 20 years, it is surprisingly difficult to make the leap and observe these locations afresh, without recalling narratives created by one’s lived experiences. Even images that focus largely on individual portraits, social gatherings and local customs (we all love a good street festival) suggest a particular character of Midwest living that feels less like a postcard, and more a moment of collected, communal memory.

Postcards are usually small things, picked up on the cheap while passing through some unfamiliar place. They are often archetypes of locations, showing the biggest or best-known views, structures and symbols. From that respect, the large photographic prints on view in “Postcards from America: Milwaukee” are made from the opposite angle of view, enlarging to monumental proportions things that are local, specific, even mundane. Their meanings are deeply subjective, providing a glimpse into nearby corners whose deeper stories may lie in the mind of the viewer.

“Postcards from America: Milwaukee” is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Drive) through Oct. 19.